St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2021

Novia Josiah-Isaac ’12 is helping refugees recover from trauma.

Novia Josiah-Isaac, photographed at Central Park, Northfield, by Tom Roster

Novia Josiah-Isaac is part of the large Karen community that has immigrated from Myanmar (Burma) to Minnesota after fleeing religious and ethnic persecution. A 2012 graduate with a degree in social work, Josiah-Isaac is a social worker and mental health case manager for the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), providing targeted case management services to Karen refugees in primary care clinics through the center’s Healing Hearts program. The program uses an interdisciplinary, team-based approach to providing integrated, specialized care for those who have lived through traumatic experiences, such as surviving torture or war atrocities.

“The Karen are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, which is still undergoing unrest,” Josiah-Isaac says, referencing the military takeover of the country on February 1. “Myanmar has been in civil war for more than 70 years, and many Karen have had to flee to Thailand to escape violence and persecution.” Many have found their way to Minnesota, which is home to the largest concentrated population of the Karen people in the United States. By 2017, there were more than 17,000 Karen living in the state.

Josiah-Isaac’s own family’s experience as refugees informs her work at CVT. Her father arrived in the United States in 2000, and once he was granted asylum, the rest of his family joined him in 2004 from their temporary home in Thailand, including Josiah-Isaac, who was 15 years old at the time.

The Josiah family resettled in St. Paul, where Josiah-Isaac enrolled at Arlington High School. “English was not my first language, so I had trouble communicating and verbalizing what I needed,” she says. “I also struggled with the cultural differences.” She was encouraged to join TRIO’s Upward Bound, and it was through that program — which supports students as they prepare for college entrance, particularly underrepresented students or those from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree — that she first discovered St. Olaf. She eventually encouraged her younger siblings, Darius Josiah ’13 and Kaziah Josiah ’17, to follow in her footsteps.

We have a legacy of helping, but we don’t call it social work; it’s just part of our culture.

“My family had limited knowledge of what a liberal arts education was,” she says. A St. Olaf course called I Want to Help People sparked Josiah-Isaac’s connection to the Karen culture of helpfulness and gave her a name for her eventual career as a social worker. Courses in a variety of fields — from Asian studies to religion — honed her critical thinking skills, and fostered a sense of responsibility to others and an appreciation for their life experiences, she says.

“My community is a collectivist culture, rather than an individualistic one. We have a legacy of helping, but we don’t call it social work; it’s just part of our culture.”

As a child, Josiah-Isaac was inspired by the “helpers” that surrounded her, included her parents. Her father, Saw Josiah, is a pastor at First Karen Baptist Church in Oakdale and worked as a resettlement manager for several years. Her late mother, Daisy Josiah, was well known in the community, managing the first in-home childcare center for children of Karen refugees in the Twin Cities.

During a junior year practicum at the Wilder Foundation, Josiah-Isaac worked with refugees struggling with mental health issues, further confirming that social work was the right field for her.

“Understanding the concept of Western mental health care is new for the Karen people,” she says. “Many Karen have limited education because of being forced to flee and leave everything behind, and then living in camps for years without adequate health care or education. As a social worker, I support my clients as they navigate the medical system. I collaborate with doctors, pharmacists, and therapists — sometimes even attorneys — as we provide appropriate treatment as a team. I like to think of myself as the bridge between two worlds: the cultural way and the Western way.”

Josiah-Isaac is the first Myanmar refugee in Minnesota to earn a master of social work degree (from St. Catherine University/University of St. Thomas in 2018) and become a licensed social worker. She is a bicultural Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW) skilled in offering culturally responsive therapy in Karen and English to refugee adults. She also is fluent in Thai and conversational in Burmese. In 2020, she was recognized for her contributions to Minnesota’s refugee community by the Minnesota Department of Human Services as a recipient of its Outstanding Refugee Award.

“I am so humbled to be able to bear witness to my clients’ journeys of recovery,” Josiah-Isaac says. “To witness their resiliency and to celebrate their small successes is very rewarding.”