The Karenni are an ethnic group from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Many left their home country due to a protracted civil war and spent years in refugee camps, particularly in Thailand. Over the last ten years, 120 families resettled in Nebraska, primarily in Omaha. They were drawn here by the low cost of living in the state, the availability of jobs in line with their skills, and effective resettlement agencies. According to a community survey conducted by two of my students, the Karenni have a strong religious identity. Most identify as Roman Catholic. As my research explores issues at the intersection of religion and health, I wanted to better understand the Karenni’s religious values and identity as well as their affiliation with and participation in the Catholic Church. In particular, I was interested in exploring the ways their church participation increased their social capital. In other words, did their religious values and networks facilitate access to needed support, help them to manage short- and long-term challenges, and increase their overall resilience?
During my years of engagement with the community, several health emergencies occurred. I spent many hours in homes and hospitals observing responses to ill health, supporting families and connecting them with resources, and praying with them for a speedy recovery. I will illustrate what I learned through a representative case.
A married woman in her forties became unconscious and was rushed to the hospital where she was kept in an artificial coma for several days. The attending physicians diagnosed necrotic tissue in her intestines. The Karenni Catholic community and the local Catholic parish offered critical support to the sick woman and her family.
Public health professionals partnering with refugee communities should pay attention to religion as an important factor for refugees’ wellbeing and engage with religious organizations to increase the effectiveness of their efforts.
First, the Karenni Catholics offered social, material, and spiritual support. It is likely they also would have done so for Karenni who are not Catholics, due to their shared ethnic identity and experiences as refugees, but to a lesser degree. Second, the local parish, where most Karenni attend services, was informed of the health crisis by a chaplain in the hospital. Subsequently, the parish provided nutritional and monetary support to the family, advocated for the family with the housing authority as they struggled to pay rent, and helped the family understand medical expenses and services.
If the patient and her family had not belonged to the Church, the Catholic Karenni community might not have provided the family with the needed support at the same level, and the parish might not have become involved. In other words, being Roman Catholic enabled access to social capital. I have frequently observed comparable dynamics among the Karenni and also among refugees belonging to other ethnic and religious communities.
I argue in a recently published article that belonging to a religious community facilitates access to support that might otherwise not be available to refugees. Religious values and social networks, conceptualized as social capital, result in improvements in various measures of wellbeing. Therefore, public health professionals partnering with refugee communities should pay attention to religion as an important factor for refugees’ wellbeing and engage with religious organizations to increase the effectiveness of their efforts.
Religious communities are likely to be strong partners, not only because of their values and practices, but also because they directly benefit when refugees, who are members, enjoy a high degree of wellbeing. After all, refugees boost membership numbers of congregations, increase participation in services and other events, and significantly enrich their congregations.