Destination Austin for Burmese refugees

Published 5:09 am Friday, December 14, 2012

Soe Myat, new Karen advocate at the Welcome Center, will help Asian families moving to Austin settle in and connect to resources in the community. -- Eric Johnson/

Soe Myat is here to help Asian families acclimate

Soe Myat is on a mission.

The latest advocate at the Welcome Center of Austin is here to help Asian families get acclimated to Austin, a job many Burmese families have hoped someone would do for more than a year.

Myat will help Burmese refugees — already working in town — move to Austin and connect with the community.

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“I’ll help with housing, medical, dental, educational and adult basic education programs,” Myat said.

Burmese refugees, most often called the Karen (pronounced “Ka-REN”) as an umbrella term, have worked in Austin primarily at Quality Pork Processors Inc. since February 2011. The Karen are one of several ethnic groups from Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Southeast Asian country largely known for the 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.

That’s where Myat and many other Austin residents lived for two years. Myat, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Rangoon University, has worked as an interpreter and consultant for various agencies and organizations for more than a decade. He and his family moved to St. Paul in 2010, before being convinced by a friend to come to Austin.

It was that friend, Maung Lin, who told Myat how Burmese refugees needed help settling in Austin. Many Burmese commute from St. Paul to work in Austin, with only about 15 families living in town.

“Lin advised to me, ‘We need to grow out, grow our community here in Austin,’” Myat said. “That’s why I moved down to Austin.”

The Welcome Center hired Myat in October, and with that move, changes are taking place.

“With this position, more people are considering moving down to Austin,” said Jake Vela, executive director of the Welcome Center.


Just two months later, Myat is already making an impact.

One of the biggest presumptions local officials had was how Burmese refugees saw themselves. The Karen aren’t the only Burmese ethnic people who sought political or war-time asylum in the U.S., as there are Karenni and Chin refugees who hope to move to Austin, too. When the Welcome Center put out an ad for a Karen advocate, officials quickly learned other Burmese refugees thought the position would only help the Karen.

That’s where Myat comes in: He’ll work not only with Burmese refugees, but with many Asian families who need help navigating the community.

“He’s filling a leadership role within his community, and we’re hoping that other people take on leadership roles within the Burmese community,” Vela said.

And there will be more people to help soon. Myat, a former political refugee, said thousands of war refugees annually leave Myanmar for the U.S. or refugee camps located in other Southeast Asian countries, though the Myanmar government took steps to form a democratic country last year. In addition, the Karen, Karenni and Chin are used to living in the mountainous region near Thailand, and many would prefer living and working in a smaller, rural community to life in a large city like St. Paul.

“That’s a really big city, and they feel really rushed,” Myat said.

Myat and other Burmese residents hope to lay the groundwork for many Burmese refugees to move into the community next year, as the Burmese finally have a connection to help them make ties to Austin.

“They’re looking for a safe tie and a safe place,” Myat said.