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Welcoming their new neighbors: Fulda group steps up to assist community's Karen residents

Alyson Buschena/Daily Globe Volunteer Rich Boehnke works with a Karen Fulda resident.1 / 3
Alyson Buschena/Daily Globe Siblings Ku Gay Paw (left) and Ku Moo are both preparing for an upcoming piano recital and have both taken piano lessons from Jan VanOort for a year and a half.2 / 3
Alyson Buschena/Daily Globe ESL teacher Sherri Boehnke (left) works with adult English language learners twice a week at the Fulda High school.3 / 3

FULDA -- Founded in 1881, the city of Fulda tends to be populated with Western European descendents. Avenues bear names like Maryland, Florence, Ireland and Baltimore, and traditional Scandinavian names dot the phone book.

But when some Fulda residents began getting new Karen neighbors, a small group of people stepped up and did everything they could to make them feel welcome.

Though she wouldn't say so herself, many of the people involved point to Chris VanDyke as the leader of their informal group.

"It started with just volunteering and helping with tutoring," she said, "and it just blossomed from there."

For the Karen living in Fulda, VanDyke became their unofficial guide, helping them assimilate into living in the United States.

"I would help them with their mail if they had questions, or set up doctor appointment or eye and dentist appointments and work with their financial aid workers, stuff like that," she said. "I just helped them whenever they had a question."

The Karen, an ethnic group of Burma (also called Myanmar), have suffered human rights abuses after an ethnic cleansing movement by the Burmese military that began in 1984.

According to World Relief Minnesota's website, there are currently about 150,000 refugees, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border in Asia.

"I've heard some stories that are just horrible -- stories of persecution that happened to their parents or some other family member. I can't imagine what they've gone through," VanDyke said.

When the United States began welcoming Karen refugees in 2005, many of them resettled in Minnesota. It is estimated that there are about 3,500 Karen currently living in the state.

VanDyke remembers one family that arrived in Fulda on Christmas Eve after an international trip from Thailand and a long car ride from the Twin Cities.

"They got out of the van, and this little boy got out wearing shorts and no shoes. They didn't have coats or any winter clothing," she said.

So VanDyke started calling neighbors and friends, reaching out to people in town to help Fulda's newest family survive a December that is a far cry from those in tropical Thailand.

According to recent estimates, more than 80 percent of Karen refugees arriving in the U.S. are Christian, including many of those that arrived in Fulda.

VanDyke said in addition to helping the Karen navigate daily life, she often brought the children to Awana at First Baptist Church, Worthington, on Wednesday nights and Sunday morning services.

Like VanDyke, Jan VanOort said she first began developing relationships with the Karen people when she started tutoring.

"I think at the very beginning, I built a relationship with them because I could see they needed help with the language. I just fell in love with them," she said, adding that she was especially interested in making them feel welcome in the community.

When the Karen first moved to Fulda, many of them lived in what used to be St. Gabriel Catholic Church's Convent, near Jan and her husband Dean's home.

"Dean and I would go help the kids with their homework, and then, when they needed things, you just helped them out," she said.

One day when VanOort, a piano teacher in Fulda, was visiting, she was surprised to have one of the boys, Ku Moo, exclaim, "I'm going to start taking piano lessons from you!"

VanOort said her first thought was, "This will be interesting!"

But, after being given a piano, Ku Moo was determined. Because he was too young to come by himself, his sister, Ku Gay Paw, accompanied him.

At first, Ku Gay Paw just watched while her brother had his lesson, but as her English improved, VanOort asked her if she would like to learn, too.

Today, the two siblings are both preparing for an upcoming piano recital and said they are excited and nervous to show off what they have learned.

After teaching them for more than a year and a half, VanOort said "It's been fun to see them grow."

Relatively isolated from the larger Karen communities, VanOort said many of the new residents see Fulda as a stopping-off place until they can move to Worthington or Marshall.

Sherri Boehnke, another longtime Fulda resident, thought she had retired when Fulda Superintendent Luther Onken asked if she would be interested in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to Karen adults.

Though she had spent her career in education, ESL was new to Boehnke, and she said Worthington teachers were helpful and offered suggestions for instructing her new class.

The class usually meets twice a week and is taught at various levels, depending on the learners' knowledge of English.

"An average lesson is different every day, depending on who is there," Boehnke said.

To help Boehnke, other volunteers have stepped forward, including high school students and Sherri's husband, Rich.

VanDyke, VanOort, and Boehnke all mentioned that there have been cultural challenges working with the Karen.

"You just assume things are the same until you find out differently," VanOort said.

But that hasn't stopped any of them from developing lasting relationships with their new neighbors.

"They are very caring people. They will call if they know I'm not feeling well. Rich and I are invited to birthday parties and housewarmings," Boehnke said. "They want us to be part of their community, just like we want them to be part of ours."

Alyson Buschena
Alyson joined the Daily Globe newsroom staff after spending a year in Latin America. A native of Fulda and graduate of the University of Northwestern, she has a bachelor's degree in English with a dual concentration in Literature and Writing and a minor in Spanish. At the Daily Globe, Alyson covers the crime beat as well as Pipestone and Murray counties, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, reading, and cooking. More of Alyson's writing can be found at
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