Finding their way home

Sitting on the office’s slate blue carpet at a tiny IKEA table, Nao Kabashima never imagined the Karen Organization of San Diego would grow so quickly. What began as brainstorming and collaboration has blossomed into a thriving community center beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

The Karen Organization of San Diego, formerly known as the Karen Foundation of San Diego, was established just three years ago to meet the needs of Karen and other minority groups from Burma who live in the region.

During a recent interview, Kabashima proudly shares that she can see the “young generation getting empowered,” which gives a glimpse of the community’s bright future ahead.

From its staff to its clients, the Karen Organization of San Diego is characterized by an atmosphere of selflessness, emulating the group that started it all.

It is estimated that the United States has become home to nearly 70,000 refugees from Burma, including Karen, Karenni, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Mon, and Burmese. Faced with the dangers of civil war in their own country, refugees from Burma have been resettling to the U.S. since 2006. In 2010, out of 73,000 total refugees admitted to the U.S., about 22 percent were refugees from Burma. To date, more than 1,000 refugees from Burma reside in San Diego, many of whom live in City Heights.

However, “home” is a relative term. Government assistance for refugee individuals in the U.S. lasts for eight months. In response to this short time frame, the community founded the Karen Organization to provide guidance and resources after the eight month assistance period ends. From case management services and job development to culture preservation and awareness, KOSD seeks to foster a system of community self-help. By offering refugees of Burma a space to call their own, KOSD encourages individuals and families to connect and contribute to the surrounding community.

Ultimately, the Karen Organization aims to participate in a civic network that serves San Diego’s refugee population well. After receiving a three-year grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in October 2011, Karen’s dreams have started to materialize. December 2011 was a month of joy, as 150 people packed into the organization’s new space for a celebratory potluck. On Friday, September 28th, 2012, Karen’s leadership opened the organization’s doors to the surrounding community. The Grand Opening was held at the organization’s office in City Heights in an effort to cultivate partnerships and help local agencies and individuals understand KOSD’s mission and goals.

Organizations and individuals who are not refugees of Burma themselves will develop a love for Burma’s various ethnic groups upon walking in the Karen Organization’s doors. Kind, generous, and hospitable, refugees from Burma have, and often still, face difficulty adjusting to life in the U.S. By spreading the word, volunteering, and donating money or goods, people can give back to generations of refugees who are genuinely making an effort to positively contribute to the local community.