campus news

Roundtable to discuss resettlement experiences of people from Southeast Asia

Three flags, The U. S. flag, Karen National Flag and the New York State flag, flown side-by-side.

The Karen national flag flies between the flags of the U.S. and New York State. Photo courtesy of Isok Kim.


Published October 20, 2023

Wooksoo Kim.
“Their presence is essential, and their contribution is substantial to Western New York’s revitalization and economic growth. ”
Wooksoo Kim, associate professor
School of Social Work

UB's Asia Research Institute (ARI), in partnership with the School of Social Work’s Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute (IRRI), is hosting “Identity and Belonging: Karen Refugees in Southeast Asian Diaspora,” a roundtable discussion to introduce a new perspective on the resettlement experiences of people from Southeast Asia, on Monday, Oct. 23, from 3-5 p.m.

The roundtable, which is open to the UB community and the public, will be held in The Buffalo Room at 10 Capen Hall, North Campus. It will also be streamed via Zoom for those who can’t attend in person.

The event is part of ARI’s Asia Policy Roundtables, which occur once every semester.

“ARI roundtables bring together scholars, policymakers, activists and others involved in the policymaking process to examine important contemporary issues related to Asia and Asian diaspora,” Nojin Kwak, vice provost for international education and professor in the Department of Communication, says.

Robert Adelman, professor and chair, UB Department of Sociology, will moderate the discussion. Other participants include:

  • Sang Kook Lee, professor and chair, Department of Cultural Anthropology, Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea
  • Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director, Asian American Federation
  • Faustina Palmatier, MSW ’19, executive director, Karen Society of Buffalo
  • Isok Kim, associate professor, UB School of Social Work

For decades, the Karen people, an ethnic minority from Myanmar, formerly Burma, have been persecuted and forcefully displaced throughout the Southeast Asian countries due to their ethnic, political and religious background.

“The Karen people, along with other refugees and asylum seekers from Burma/Myanmar, are the biggest single ethnic refugee group living in Buffalo,” says Wooksoo Kim, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute and associate professor in the School of Social Work. “Since the early 2000s, when they first started to resettle, their numbers have grown exponentially due to direct resettlement and secondary migration.

“Buffalo has increased its population for the first time in 70 years, thanks to recent Asian immigrants and refugees,” Wooksoo Kim adds. “Their presence is essential, and their contribution is substantial to Western New York’s revitalization and economic growth.”

The Karen Society of Buffalo, a community-based organization that seeks to enhance the quality of life and cultivate the self-sufficiency of immigrants from Burma/Myanmar while preserving and sharing their cultural heritage, estimates that over 10,000 refugees from Burma/Myanmar arrived in Buffalo over the past 15 years.

“We hope that attendees will realize that Karen refugees have established unique social, cultural and political support networks that go beyond local geography,” Isok Kim, associate professor in the School of Social Work and event co-organizer, says. “Instead of simply succumbing to indiscriminate absorption into mainstream society, Karen people have proactively charted different navigational paths to integration, using technology and social media in a transnational context.”

The roundtable is the second event in a two-part series discussing the experiences of the Karen community. On Saturday, Oct. 21, the ARI and IRRI are partnering with the Karen Society of Buffalo to host “Karen Refugees in the United States: A Community Conversation.

In this community conversation, Lee will talk about his scholarly work on the resettlement experiences of Karen people. Karen community leaders from across the United States will also discuss their community-building efforts in their local communities, as well as across the country and the world.

“With the participation of Professor Sang Kook Lee and local and national Karen leaders, we expect these events will provide new insights for researchers with the Asia Research Institute and Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute, and for community leaders advocating for and assisting Karen refugees in Buffalo and throughout the United States,” Kwak says.

The series is also sponsored by the Nila T. Gnamm Fund, School of Social Work and Asian Studies Program.

“We already sense the big pride from the Karen community about this pair of events,” Wooksoo Kim says. “We hope everyone will appreciate the strong connection between the Buffalo refugee community and UB, a connection that IRRI has been cultivating for the last decade.”