- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

ST. PAUL, Minn.

Robert BaZan lives under the radar in a stretch of ruddy brick apartments here, organizing rallies and writing articles on behalf of the Karen independence movement in his native Burma.

For three decades, he fought in a guerrilla war in the country that calls itself Myanmar, then gave it up and moved to the American Midwest in what he called “a change of strategy.” Karen rebels have been fighting for autonomy in eastern Burma — whose military government has drawn harsh criticism from the United States — for a half-century in one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.

“We Karen want to raise awareness around the world about what is happening, while the guerrillas do the fighting,” Mr. BaZan said. “We’re combining our forces.”

He added: “We can do things from here.”

Mr. BaZan’s long-distance activism might seem unusual, if not quixotic. But the 64-year-old is just one of several political and cultural leaders who have pursued an array of international causes from their exile outpost in Minnesota.

Theserefugee elites include college professorsfrom Africa and the Middle East, a general who led Hmong forces during the Vietnam War, former prime ministers of Somali interim governments and a leading Liberian dissident who is now his country’s new labor minister. One businessman from the Twin Cities who fled Yugoslavia as a dissident decades ago now serves on a city council in Croatia.

A variety of factors has led them to Minnesota, including an effective resettlement program — the Somali and Hmong populations are the largest in the country — a collection of colleges and universities in the Twin Cities and a strong economy. Their work has resulted in a refugee population energized by volatile political movements far from Minnesota.

In January, St. Paul resident Samuel Kofi Woods, a human rights activist, was chosen to be labor minister by Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Mr. Woods fled Liberia for Minnesota in 1998, then kept up his activism, most recently traveling to refugee camps in Liberia’s border states.

Mr. Woods left Liberia after he was threatened by the government of dictator Charles Taylor. He had friends in Minnesota, then decided to stay after meeting Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat who encouraged him to live in Minnesota while working on Liberian issues, Mr. Woods said. Years of civil war killed 200,000 people in Liberia.

“People will ask me, ‘How did you end up in a cold place like Minnesota? Shouldn’t you be in New York or somewhere like that?’” he said. “But I enjoy it there. It’s a hospitable place, and I can still work on these issues.”

Writers and other intellectuals have been part of refugee waves in Minnesota since the Cold War, said Joel Wurl, assistant director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. The most recent refugee leaders were part of immigrant waves from the 1990s and 2000s, and technology has made it easier for them to exert influence from the diaspora.

Abbas Mehdi fled Iraq 30 years ago. Now a management professor at St. Cloud State University, he founded the Union of Independent Iraqis, a group committed to democracy in Iraq, and has spoken about Iraq in speeches at Georgetown University and various organizations.

“I have to say I’ve thought many times about moving [to Washington], closer to the government and the center of power,” Mr. Mehdi said. “Now, technology is the most significant factor for staying. Probably without that, I would not still be here.”

North Oaks businessman Boris Miksic fled Yugoslavia in the 1970s when he feared for his safety as a student dissident. Mr. Miksic kept up his opposition to the communist regime in absentia and now, long after the fall of communism, serves on the city council in Zagreb, Croatia. He even ran for the presidency of Croatia last year, garnering nearly 18 percent of the vote.

Through e-mail and online newspapers, Mr. Miksic follows daily life in Croatia while running his business enterprises in Minnesota. He seeks comments on his own Web site and has an office in Zagreb. He travels to Croatia once a month.

Mr. Miksic is grateful that refugees remain tied to their homelands, as he has been for three decades. However, he said some refugees remain adrift from issues in their new communities because of their concerns about life back home.

“Immigrants come to the U.S. and bring their conflicts and problems with them, and that’s not great, and it’s not the American way,” he said. “But I found that Minnesota people are very supportive, and they’re curious. They’re interested in what’s happening in the world.”

Using e-mail and the Internet, Mr. BaZan maintains contact with Karen in Burma and others in exile. He coordinated a rally at the state Capitol last summer and is planning a march at the United Nations in New York later this year. He and other activists have sent a letter to President Bush and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, that set forth an array of reputed abuses by the Burmese dictatorship.

More people are learning about Burma’s government, partly because of the iconic status of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been put under house arrest by the regime.

Mr. BaZan, whose father was president of the rebel Karen National Union, said he hopes to sponsor more Karen who are looking for refuge in the United States. He would tell them that he fled to Minnesota because an uncle lived here, then he found that “the U.S. has more freedom and democracy” than anywhere else. He would tell them that he found Minnesota a good fit, so he stayed.

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