Welcome Center seeks interpreter in response to growing Asian community

Published 10:50am Tuesday, October 22, 2013

As Austin expands, so does the Welcome Center of Austin.

The nonprofit outreach organization for residents new to Austin will add another Karen interpreter in response to a growth in Austin’s Burmese refugee population. The Welcome Center will expand its services to Burmese refugees and other Asian residents over the next few months.

“We’re starting to see more Karen coming to Austin,” Jake Vela, executive director of the Welcome Center, said.

The Welcome Center’s current Karen interpreter speaks four languages and works with more than 50 families on a semi-weekly basis, in addition to increasing translation requests from Austin Public Schools and other places around town, according to Vela. All of that adds up to more residents coming to live in Austin.

“We’re seeing it in terms of the number of requests for interpretation, case management and other services,” Vela said.

The demand for more services mirrors an increase in services catering to Austin’s Asian population. There are now three Asian markets in Austin, including the recently opened Lucky Brothers Market.

The Karen is a blanket term for ethnic groups of Burmese refugees who have immigrated to the U.S. from Burma, also known as Myanmar, over the past few decades in response to the Burmese government’s persecution of several ethnic groups.

The Southeast Asian country is largely known for its military group in power from 1989 to 2011, and for increasing human rights abuses. The hundreds of thousands of Karen refugees in particular have long been subject to persecution and ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar government, according to the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

There are about 10,000 Burmese refugees in Minnesota, and the Karen Organization of Minnesota estimates about 6,500 Karen live in the state. St. Paul has the largest and fastest-growing population of Burmese refugees in the U.S.

Local officials have found more Karen are moving to Austin for area jobs since 2011, though many Karen workers commuted to St. Paul on the weekends, where their families stayed. More workers are bringing their families to settle in Austin this year.

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