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'We are neighbors in Omaha': Priest, medical anthropology professor reflects on city's Karenni community

Tucked in amongst Omaha’s vibrant refugee community, the Karenni people live out a quiet but joyful existence in their new home.

Forced from their native land — the Kayah State in east-central Myanmar — by a violent and protracted civil war between Myanmar’s central government and several ethnic and religious minorities, the first of Omaha’s roughly 400 Karenni began arriving in the city about a decade ago.

In 2013, Creighton University medical anthropology professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies, the Rev. Alexander Roedlach, SVD, PhD, began hearing about the Karenni as part of a research project on refugee health several faculty from three different colleges at Creighton had embarked upon with several College of Arts and Sciences and College of Nursing students.

“I learned the Karenni were mostly Catholic and, as a priest, I became interested in the pastoral care they receive in Omaha,” Fr. Roedlach said. “I contacted a few people in the community. They are very welcoming and, with a Karenni seminarian from Iowa and a Creighton student in the Health Administration and Policy program, we began working with them on a community-wide survey to find out how many were here, to understand their family structure, to become familiar with their history and culture, to learn about their joys, needs, and concerns, and to comprehend how they make a living and develop roots in Omaha. We began to see that it is a very close-knit community that feels at home in Nebraska but also faces many struggles.”

Despite a language barrier for many of the elder Karenni who do not speak English, Fr. Roedlach was asked by the Karenni to celebrate Masses for the community and soon found himself in private houses packed with the faithful.

“These are such joyous events,” he said. “Sixty, 80, or even 100 people gather in a house for Mass and little kids are running all over the place and enjoying themselves. I read the prayers in their language, which is a tonal language that I am not able speak. I am not really sure what I am saying. However, the community is familiar with the Catholic prayers at mass and responds. The readings and songs are all in their language. There’s a meal afterwards and you see how strong the sense of community is among them and how they support each other.”

The past few years, Roedlach has celebrated a Christmas Mass with the Karenni that has also drawn Creighton faculty, staff, students and Jesuits. The Mass takes place in the gymnasium at St. Cecelia Cathedral — where the Karenni have found a parish home — and is followed by a community-wide celebration in the hall below the gymnasium.

While there is some cultural crossover with the Karen people — who hail from a neighboring state in Myanmar and provide a prominent voice in Omaha’s refugee community — the Karenni have been less engaged than the Karen to seek a larger platform here. The Karenni are often mixed up with the Karen but their language, also called Kayah, is not mutually intelligible with language spoken by the Karen, and many of their cultural practices are also unique to their way of life.

But, Roedlach said, the Karenni are far from insular. They have established a cultural society to coordinate events and activities related to their history and ethnic identity and to interact with other groups in Nebraska. The Karenni have gained a reputation as diligent workers and apt students.

“Many of them work in the meatpacking plants or other low-wage jobs in Omaha, including with custodial services at Creighton,” Roedlach said. “But among the teenagers and the young people, there are hopes that maybe they could take that next step. Maybe they can come to Creighton Prep, to Creighton as students or to the professional schools. They are building their confidence. There are many among them who have the intellectual capacity as well as the commitment to work hard to become, for example doctors or lawyers. Some of them could easily be among the top 10 percent of students in my classes here at Creighton.”

This spring, Creighton, through the Department of Cultural and Social Studies and the Division of Mission and Ministry, is likely to start a long-term relationship with the Karenni community and to host the community’s annual Spring Festival, called Kay Htoe Boe, which celebrates their history and tradition and the start of the agricultural season.

The central focus of the festival is a tall pole placed in the ground and around which the men dance. The pole is decorated with symbols of the Karenni worldview and cosmology. The women pour water down the backs of the men, serving to cool the dancers but with the added meanings of ritual cleansing.

As with many Karenni celebrations, the rituals are followed by a communal meal, sports, and games.

The festival is usually celebrated in April and the elders of the community determine the actual date.

“It is very likely that they will celebrate the festival next year in the Jesuit Gardens,” Roedlach said. “As with other celebrations, the friends of the community are always welcome, and this will be an excellent opportunity for us at Creighton to get to know them and to develop personal relationships with them. And as with any relationship, we don’t know where it leads us to and what the outcome will be. But I am sure that both the Karenni and the Creighton community will benefit from these relationships. We will learn from each other, broaden our understanding of the purpose of faith and life, and might even develop joint projects to support each other, particularly the youth.”

From the early interactions, Roedlach said he sees a growing interest developing between the Karenni and Creighton. He hopes further interactions will prove fruitful.

“I think they already see Creighton as a welcoming place,” he said. “They got to know several Creighton students, staff, and faculty. As we interact with them, we give Creighton a human face and touch, and indicate to the community that this is a place where they feel they can belong. As especially the adults struggle with English, they tend spend their lives only within their own community, but hopefully, as the years go by, the relationship the Creighton community develops with the Karenni community can broaden their sense of belonging and social networks. After all, we are neighbors in Omaha and share similar values.”

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