Growing Karen population has court scrambling for interpreters

St. Paul is home to the largest Karen population in the country. They are members of an ethnic minority from Myanmar, where they have long faced persecution and violence. Like Minnesota's Hmong population, many have moved from refugee camps in Thailand. There are now estimated to be more than 7,000 Karen people living in the St. Paul metro area -- more than double their population just four years ago.

As the population grows, Ramsey County courts are handling more and more cases involving Karen (pronounced Kuh-REN) people. In fact, the number of cases requiring Karen interpreters has increased more than four-fold in the past four years from 66 to 300 cases, said Kazoua Yang, operations supervisor for the interpreters office at the Ramsey County Courts.

This has left Yang scrambling to find Karen interpreters. She said there are two Karen interpreters that consistently take cases in Ramsey County, where there are about five cases requiring a Karen interpreter each week.

If no interpreter is available, proceedings must be postponed. "These people sometimes have to stay in jail overnight if we don't have a Karen interpreter ... to interpret for a bond or to call their relative," Yang said.

Yang has asked current interpreters to refer family and friends who can speak both Karen and English. Polly Ryan, coordinator of court interpreter program at the state level, has also reached out to the Karen Organization of Minnesota to further spread the word.

Many Karen refugees have never seen a courtroom and are intimidated by the U.S. legal system, Yang said. She offers those interested the opportunity to shadow current interpreters before taking their first case on their own. This allows them to ask questions they may otherwise feel uncomfortable asking, she said, and builds comfort in the legal setting. "It's good to start with just seeing the courtroom," she said. "It's a culture shock for many of them."

Yang has also waived fees for the required ethics exam and two-day orientation course.

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