‘Cultural broker’ is working to keep Karen community safe from COVID-19

18October 2020

The death of a founder of the Karen Organization of Minnesota from complications related to COVID-19 has rocked the state’s Karen community.

More than 17,000 Karen immigrants, who fled oppression in Burma, live in Minnesota, making it the largest Karen community in the country.

Marner Saw, who helped launch the Karen Organization of Minnesota and became one of its first staffers in 2009, died Oct. 2 at M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul after being hospitalized for four weeks. He was 50.

“Oh my God, it was terrible,” said Lwepaw Kacher, a longtime friend and co-worker. “Coping with that was so hard. It was a wake-up call for us that anybody can get COVID. It does not matter who you are.”

Spurred by Saw’s death, Kacher last weekend organized a gathering of Karen church leaders, doctors and state health officials. About a dozen leaders from Karen churches throughout the east metro gathered in the courtyard outside First Baptist Church in downtown St. Paul on Oct. 10 to listen to speakers, ask questions and learn about the virus.

Lwepaw Kacher (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Reaching out to leaders of the Karen churches was key, according to Kacher, who is a Karen “cultural broker” for M Health Fairview. “In our community, going to church and meeting each other in church is just part of our life,” Kacher said. “We don’t go to parties; we go to church. For us, church is the place where we go out and meet people and find our spiritual strength. It’s very, very, very important for our Karen community.”

About 600 members of the Karen community have tested positive for COVID-19, about 80 have been hospitalized and 11 have died, she said.

With some Karen churches opening up again, Kacher said she is concerned those numbers could increase. “We worry that it’s not done safely and that maybe not everybody knows how to follow the rules,” she said. “Sometimes they underestimate COVID. They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s just COVID. I’ve had it already, I’m OK.’ ”

Another cause of concern: singing. COVID is more easily transmitted indoors, and singing releases minuscule droplets that can carry the virus.

“Singing is a big part of our church,” said Kacher, who lives in Maplewood. “We sing. No matter what, we sing. We sing choir; we sing individual solos. We just sing.”


Born in Burma, Kacher, 50, said she and her family were forced out of their home when she was 7 and ended up living in a village on the Thai-Burma border. After high school, she received a Burmese Refugee Student Scholarship to study in the U.S. “I am Karen, but somehow I get the opportunity to come here as a Burmese refugee,” she said. “The opportunity was there, so I took it and got accepted.”

Lwepaw Kacher, a Karen cultural broker for M Health Fairview, talks with a attendee at a meeting with Karen community leaders to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic at the First Baptist Church of Saint Paul on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

In 1996, Kacher enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington to study English. She later moved to San Francisco, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from San Francisco State University. She stayed in the San Francisco area for 20 years before moving to Minnesota in August 2017 to work with the Karen community. She started working for HealthEast, placed at the Karen Organization of Minnesota in Roseville, as a Karen cultural broker a few months later.

M Health Fairview, formerly HealthEast, also has cultural brokers who support the African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Hmong and American Indian populations on St. Paul’s East Side. The brokers act as liaisons to help translate and support people as they navigate schools, health care and other mainstream systems.

“We connect community members to resources,” Kacher said. “We focus on social isolation and mental health and, for my position, they added chemical health. I deal with any public-health issue that our community needs help with.”

Kacher is a selfless leader and longtime volunteer in the Karen community, said William Englund, senior pastor of First Baptist Church.

“Lwepaw moved to Minnesota because this is where she could serve her people,” he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of Karen leaders, and I find them to be just an amazing group of selfless individuals who hardly ever use the pronoun ‘I’ and almost always use the pronoun ‘we.’ It’s not I; it’s the community that matters.”


Englund helped Kacher organize last weekend’s gathering. “We wanted to show good caution, especially in the shadow of Marner’s death,” he said. “The reason we chose Karen leaders to attend is because it’s not just what you hear that is important, but it’s who you hear it from.”

Kacher, who is married and has two daughters, ages 12 and 19, teaches Sunday school at her church in Maplewood. She said she cried during a recent prayer offered by one of her second-grade students.

“She said, ‘Dear God, make COVID go away. I don’t want anybody to die anymore because if a lot of people die, we’re going to get lonely,’ ” Kacher said. “It broke my heart. We don’t want anyone else to pass away from COVID. It’s terrible. I want people to understand how serious it is. We don’t want to be a community that hosted COVID. We want everyone to take responsibility and to keep us safe, so that our community and our neighbors will be safe.”

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