I am a refugee from Myanmar, also called Burma, located between China and India. I am Zomi, one of the minority groups in Burma that has its own language and culture. I am a Catholic because of the French missionaries who planted the seed in my area in 1939.
If the United States did not have a refugee resettlement program, I would not be here. This is a blessing from you. We knew that America is the nation of milk and honey, which means to us a country that receives blessings from God. We also knew that the United States is the second heaven and heaven on earth. It is a country that helps vulnerable people and protects their lives. Of course, our church, the Catholic Church, does this, too. These are the values that we have kept in our mind and gave us hope. We don’t know about high technology; we don’t care who has what. We treasure how American people value others.
When I came to this nation in 2015, I received welcome money, public assistance for rent and food. Your tax money gave us hope, faith and life. It was wisely and meaningfully spent, an investment. We are in this country not to harm, but to journey together to build a better tomorrow. We Zomi Catholics are here to keep and grow our faith together with you.
I fled my country in 2006 because of political suppression and persecution of the Christian minority. My brother Paul, a smart guy who wanted to help the Zomi people, was arrested in 1998 by the military government in Myanmar. My family nightmare started then. The authorities kept watch on our activities without any reason. My brother, an innocent man, was released after serving six years of extremely hard labor. But he was asked to report to the authorities every week. We feared this was the beginning of a kind of ethnic cleansing.
He had no choice but to run away from home before anything worse happened. As his siblings, we were in danger, too, and had to get out of Burma as soon as possible. I stayed in a jungle refugee camp in Malaysia for two years. I was scared to leave the jungle. I was scared that police and any uniformed people might arrest me.
Unfortunately, in 2008 I did get arrested for not having legal documents. With about 80 other people, I was deported to Thailand with nothing except the clothes I was wearing. Malaysian immigration officials brought me to the border and sold me to a human trafficker for about $150. I had a very faithful Malaysian Christian friend, Chris Yong, who rescued me from the human trafficker with $1,300 collected at his church. If the church had not helped me, I could be dinner for a shark in the sea.
I came back to Kuala Lumpur and worked at a refugee school for about eight years. Refugee are not allowed in Malaysian public schools. I also was a leader helping refugee Catholic families in Malaysia not only with their social needs, but spiritual needs together with the parishes and archdiocese.
Finally, I am able to help my own Zomi Catholic community here. We started arriving in Portland in 2008. We are now at about 30 households with 150 individuals. There will be more families relocating in Portland. This is because of you. You give us hope and faith. When refugees know about you and us, people love to come here and want to settle here. We do not know each other but by the grace of God, our faith, we are as brothers and sisters. I would like to remind you that you have invested in my life in many ways.
Even though we refugees face culture shock and a language barrier, those problems will not divide our faith. In reality, we have so many worries in our daily lives. But we never give up. We work hard. We continue to support our families, even when 60 percent of our income goes to rent. We are grateful for what you have given us.
The day I entered our church, three days after I arrived in the United States, I saw the sign that said “You Are Loved!” I was so happy to come to church from then onwards. We sought love for so long, the real love, the love of God. Here you are.
The writer is a husband and father two girls. He is community education worker for the Zomi and Burmese community in Portland at the Asian Family Center and leader of the Zomi Catholic Community in Portland. He also is studying at Mount Hood Community College. This column was adapted from a talk he gave at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland.