Enhancing the quality of life for Karen and other refugees from Burma in Minnesota
The Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) are an ethnic group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand, where they are the second largest ethnic group in each country. They have long been subject to persecution and ethnic cleansing by the Burmese government, and many have been living in refugee camps in Thailand for years before being resettled to Minnesota. There are approximately 6,500 Karen living in Minnesota with an additional 500 refugees from other ethnic groups in Burma. St. Paul currently has the largest and fastest-growing Karen populations in the U.S. Other communities in Minnesota with a large Karen population include Worthington, Willmar, Austin, Albert Lea and Faribault.
The Karen Organization of Minnesota's ("KOM") mission is to enhance the quality of life for Karen and other refugees from Burma in Minnesota.
Assist refugees to settle, integrate and become increasingly self-sufficient;
Foster cultural knowledge and understanding; and
Strengthen organizational capacity and effectiveness to meet the needs of the community.
The Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM) is the first Karen-led nonprofit organization in the country. It has its origins in the Karen Community of Minnesota (KCM), a volunteer-led organization established in 2003 by Robert Zahn, Saw Million, Saw Oo, Saw Nay Htoo, KyawKyaw, Wilfred Tun Baw, and other leaders in St. Paul's growing Karen community. KCM served as the community's governing body, helping newly arrived Karen refugees in the Twin Cities maintain their culture, elect community leaders, and receive assistance beyond the initial resettlement period.
At that time, there was no exclusively Karen-oriented social services agency in the Twin Cities, though Vietnamese Social Services (VSS) did express an interest in serving the Karen and had Karen speakers available to assist clients. The leaders of KCM decided to register as a nonprofit in order to obtaingreater authority to provide employment and social services and resourcesto hire paid staff. In 2005, members of KCM began a three-year training program under VSS to become an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. VSS provided training in social services, computers, and staff management and helped KCM establish their Board of Directors in 2007.
KCM was formally registered as a 501(c)(3) organization in the U.S. in 2008. However, KCM's leaders quickly realized that this status would restrict their ability to send support to families in Burma and Thailand as well as in the U.S. Community leaders and the Board of Directors therefore decided to separate the newly formed nonprofit organization from KCM in order to keep KCM as an unincorporated, volunteer-based association. The Board of Directors and community leaders renamed the nonprofit organization to Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM) to distinguish it from KCM.
In 2009, KOM received two state and one federal grant that allowed them to establish their corporate headquarters in the Vinai Office Park on Jackson Street in St. Paul's North End neighborhood. They hired and trained four paid staff, many of them from their original pool of volunteers at KCM. Since then, they have partnered with many local organizations and nonprofits, including World Relief Minnesota, the Wilder Foundation, MORE School, VSS, and the St. Paul Public School system. Several of KCM's leaders serve on KOM's staff and Board of Directors, and hundreds of KCM members volunteer to help KOM clients. Today, KOM employs 18 paid staff and serves over 1,000 refugees from Burma of all ethnicities every year. KOM's success is due to dedicated community leaders, KCM's Board of Directors and its volunteers, and the Board of Directors of KOM.
KOM Meets Nonprofit Giving Standards According to Minnesota Charities Review Council
KOM is proud to announce in April 2011 it received the “Meets Standards” seal of approval from the MN Charities Review Council. MN Charities Review Council is an independent nonprofit that reviews charities through its thorough Accountability Wizard Foundations and donors in Minnesota utilize the results to help determine the trustworthiness and transparency of a nonprofit on how well they operate and manage their resources. MN Council of Nonprofits’ 2010 study stated there are over 3,750 nonprofits in MN. KOM joined the ranks of only 411 of those nonprofits in Minnesota that meet MN Charities Review Council Accountability Standards. KOM would like to extend our greatest appreciation to Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Foundation and BCBS Foundation consultant, Bob Frawley, for providing funding and technical assistance to make this possible. Please see a recent article by the MN Charities Review Council highlighting KOM (PDF).
The following PDF documents are available for download: