The Karen in Ireland
The Karen are the largest ethnic minority group in Burma. They have been in conflict with the Burmese military since Burma gained independence from Britain in 1946. The Karen has fought with the British in World-War two and had been promised semi-autonomous statehood within a federal Burma. However, after independence the Burmese majority refused the Karen their right of self-determination. The Karen controlled a large part of their territory up until the 1990's when the Burmese military began to occupy and hold Karen land. Since this time thousands have fled their homeland to escape persecution. Many have ended up at camps on the Thai-Burma where they face an uncertain future.
The Karen in Mayo came from one such camp (Ban Don Yang) to Ireland at the end of 2007. They are part of the Irish governments Programme Refugee resettlement programme which it undertakes in conjunction with the UNHCR. The programme is co-ordinated nationally by the Office of the Minister for Integration (OMI) who accept up to 200 programme Refugees annually for resettlement. All Programme Refugees spend eight weeks in the national refugee orientation in Ballyhaunis before being resettled around the country. Mayo was lucky to have been chosen as the location for the Karen resettlement and since late 2007 early 2008 we have had a Karen community in both Castlebar and Ballina. The then area partnership company 'Meitheal Mhaigheo' was awarded the task of organising the resettlement locally with the formation of the 'Mayo Karen Integration Project'. An interagency group was formed by Mayo County Council to facilitate the work of all the service providers involved.
The Karen have been warmly received by the Mayo people and many friendships have been formed over the past couple of years. Everybody is learning English with the VEC and some are undertaking training with Fas and other organisations. There are two Karen Befriending groups which were established to provide a space for both communities to get to know each other and to learn from each other. These groups were established initially by the Karen support workers and are now supported by the Family Resource Centres in Ballina and Castlebar. To date they have held many sporting and cultural events which have brought the Karen and the host community together in a spirit of respect and friendship.
The Karen community also have their own organisation the Karen association of Ireland which co-ordinates the groups activities and promotes links with Irish society while preserving their own unique culture. Together with Margaret and Andrew Clarke from Dundalk IT the association have developed this website to act as a focal point for the Karen in Ireland and to encourage communication with the Karen diaspora.
Gerry Mulherin, November 2009