Describe your career journey and how you found yourself the founder and Executive Director of the Karen Organization of San Diego.
Nao: I grew up in Japan, and when I was about 10 years old, my mom shared with me about refugee populations and I decided that this was something I really wanted to be involved with. After I graduated from a University in Japan, I decided to come to the United States and get my Masters of Political Science from Chico State. During my graduate studies, I was an intern with IRC in San Jose working with the Somali community. It was during this experience that I became fascinated by the process of refugee resettlement and helping families have the opportunity to start their life outside of their home country if they are unable to return.
After I graduated from Chico, I became really sick and needed to have a couple of surgeries. The recovery time was much longer than anticipated and I eventually became very depressed. My husband was very worried about my mental health, so he decided to buy me a guitar and lessons with someone who worked at Jewish Family Services. My teacher connected me with JFS’s refugee resettlement work and I began to volunteer. It was 2009 when many of the Karen were arriving from Burma. After a few months, the Karen leaders asked me if I would help them start a community-based organization with them. We filed for a 501c3 in August 2009 and received it a year later in 2010 to establish the Karen Organization of San Diego (KOSD) .
The Karen Organization has had a significant impact on the lives of refuges from Burma in all aspects of their lives. Can you share about this impact and what you are most proud of in assisting newcomers throughout their journey to becoming resettled in a new country?
N: KOSD is the only organization dedicated to serving refugees from Burma (Myanmar), including Karen, Karenni, Kachin, and Rohingya who all have different linguistic, cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. We currently serve more than 750 refugees from Burma each year through direct service programs, including case management, health navigation, community education, crisis intervention, support groups, youth leadership and language assistance.
KOSD is a grassroots organization led by and for the community it serves – that is what I am most proud of. Each family’s cultural uniqueness is recognized, honored, and respected through family-centered, outcomes-based, and content rich support services provided by our diverse staff. Today, 60% of KOSD’s Board Members are former refugees from Burma who were democratically elected by their peers. Having these representatives on KOSD’s board and highest levels of governance helps community members have a sense of ownership and ensures that the organization provides culturally and linguistically appropriate services. We were recognized for this effort when we won the University of San Diego’s Kaleidoscope Award for good board governance in 2019.
Also, 100% of KOSD’s caseworkers and program staff are former refugees from Burma who have emerged as leaders in the community. KOSD’s program staff possess the linguistic capacity to serve clients speaking Karen, Burmese, and Karenni languages. Many studies show that linguistic diversity creates a substantial barrier for refugees from Burma to access mainstream services, and this is a reality in San Diego considering the fact that more than 90% of adult refugees from Burma have no or very limited English proficiency and most service providers lack the language capacity and cultural competence to work with this population. Currently we have 14 employees, and I am the only person who is not a refugee from Burma. All of them have experienced the same challenges of those we serve. I’m very proud to see how they are leading this organization.
What is the history of the people you serve and what circumstances led them to live in City Heights?
N: San Diego is now home for more than 2,200 refugees from Burma who fled violence and persecution by the government and military. More than 90% of them live in City Heights. Most refugees from Burma have spent many years, sometimes decades or even an entire generation, in the isolation of refugee camps due to long-lasting civil wars originally started in 1949. Camps lack strong educational infrastructure, employment, and skill development opportunities. Increased numbers of refugees from Burma are now coming from Malaysia where they spent many years as urban refugees without legal status. As such, refugee families often arrive in the U.S. without formal education and with traumatic memories of human rights violations back in their own home country.
On February 1, 2021, the military forcefully took control of Burma (Myanmar) in a coup and detained numerous leaders of the country. Since then, the violence by the military against civilians has been escalated, and people in Burma have been demanding for justice and democracy for their country. At the same time, violence against many ethnic minority groups in Burma, including Karen, Karenni, and others, by the military has never stopped since the beginning of the civil war in 1949, which is considered the longest civil war in the world.
Can you share with us a bit about your life outside of the Karen Organization?
N: I am so passionate to work for survivors of suicide loss. It is not easy to talk about this, but many of us are survivors. I lost my mother to suicide when I was 17, and I am still grieving and thinking about it every single day, even after more than 20 years. Suicide is something you never talk about with others, especially in Japan, even with close friends. This is also true here in the U.S., but the stigma around suicide and suicide loss is even more serious in Japan. There was no support available for survivors of suicide loss when I was a youth. It was one of the main reasons I left Japan and came to the U.S. when I was 24 years old. I have not shared of my experience with suicide loss at all until recently, but I decided to start talking about it little by little because I believe it is something I can do to remember my mother’s pain and struggles. In fact, it was my mother who had a passion to work for refugees and immigrants. Ever since I was little, she gave me many opportunities to learn and listen to the stories of refugees and refugee children around the world. I am sure that she is super happy and proud to know about this recognition from Mr. Price!