Karenni (Burma): Understanding your Karenni students and their cultural backgrounds

Karenni refugee students: Cultural background profiles

Many educators teaching diverse students report that they do not receive enough cultural background information on their students. If you are teaching refugee students, it is important to be aware of newcomers’ backgrounds.  The information below is meant to provide an overview of key highlights, so you develop culturally responsive teaching strategies that are in tune with your students’ unique learning styles.

Karenni Girl Dance in Springfield, MA - 137th Karenni National Day. Photo from Kayahland.com.
Karenni Girl Dance in Springfield, MA – 137th Karenni National Day. Photo from Kayahland.

Karenni Map2

Karenni Map1Burma (Myanmar) has suffered civil war, political oppression and ethnic conflict since the 1950s.

Burma includes over 100 different ethnic minority groups, with some of the most well-known being the Burman, Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Shan, Rohinyan, and Mon. The Karenni live in Karenni state, and thousands are in refugee camps in Thailand.

Karenni, Burmese, and English

Teaching in the Classroom
All camps have primary and, to a lesser extent, middle or high schools. Most students in camps attend schools because they are free. Teachers drawn from the refugee community are paid very modest salaries by nongovernmental organizations. Teachers are typically not trained. International volunteers may sometimes improve students’ English levels but do not necessarily have long term positive impacts on the overall education system. Camp conditions—overcrowding, poor facilities, a chronic shortage of books and equipment—make learning and teaching a challenge and contribute to relatively high dropout rates. Moreover, the lack of work opportunities has reduced enthusiasm for the value of education among older children since students who do graduate still are unable to work or attend university.

In surveys carried out by UNHCR in late 2005 and 2006 of more than 6,000 adult Karenni refugees who applied for resettlement to the United States and other countries, about two thirds reported having received primary, middle, or secondary education, and about one third reported having received no education. Fewer than 100 people had received vocational training or attended university.

Family/School Engagement
Karennis are not likely to ask for help, even if they need it. It will help families if you can provide referrals to community agencies that provide schools supplies etc., but be sure to explain these resources are available to any family and that you are not singling out their student or family.

Karenni culture places a high value on respect for elders and duty to parents. Karenni tend to address one another by titles, such as “Auntie” or “Uncle.” You can show respect for parents by addressing them this way, such as “Auntie Bathesheba.”

Karennis are very community- and family-focused. Community members are often thought of as extended family members. Karenni refugees in the US continue to highly value their families and cultural heritage, and Karen communities highly value their traditions and independence. One of the best ways to engage families is to create activities and after-school programs that promote traditional culture, such as asking community leaders to teach traditional dancing. It is important to keep in mind that many refugees do not know how to drive or lack access to a car, so transportation to school events will be a challenge.

Culture, Gender and Family
The probable background of your Karenni families before they went to the refugee camps was poverty-level agricultural work.

The Karenni are traditionally animists, many of whom have converted to Christianity but retain their original animist belief system based on the appeasement of spirits, which requires a variety of rituals and sacrifices. The Karenni believe that a person possesses a number of souls, kla, and that it is vitally important to retain the kla, which might flee for various reasons (in connection with a mental breakdown, for example).

Parents share responsibility for raising children and decision-making, but men typically communicate decisions to the public and are seen as the leaders of the family. Karen men may be looked down upon or teased if they do not appear to be the leader of the wife. In the camps, however, women’s groups play an important role. They push women’s concerns at the camp leadership level, promote education and work opportunities for women, and provide support for the many vulnerable community members, such as orphans, widows, and the victims of domestic violence.

Additional Resources




https://ethnomed.org/culture/other-groups/burmese/Burmese Refugee Health Profile 2_3_16 FINAL DGMQ.pdf/view?searchterm=burma

IRC REFUGEE TEACHER PACKET http://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/migrated/where/united_states_salt_lake_city_ut/refugee-backgrounders.pdf


Share Your Ideas

If you have comments or additional information or ideas to share on teaching Karenni students, please email: info@usahello.org.

Take our Course for Educators

If you would like more training on how to educate refugee and immigrant students, please consider enrolling in our course, Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students: An Online Course for Teachers.

Print this Information as a PDF

You can download and print this Karenni learner profile as a PDF and keep it as a resource in your classroom.

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