About $20,000 is still needed to buy, transport and guard a machine that will create oxygen to save COVID-19 patients in a troubled region of Myanmar.

Francis Kham, a refugee from Myanmar who leads the Zomi ethnic community in Portland, has marshalled the campaign to save relatives and friends in the south Asian nation. The local Zomi are largely Catholic and attend St. Joseph the Worker Church in Southeast Portland.

“If we can have oxygen ready, that might save a lot of lives,” Kham told the Sentinel in August.

Among those who already died are priests and women religious. That caught the attention of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters. The famed hotelier left funds in his will to support the works of sisters worldwide. The Hilton Fund gave $100,000 for the oxygen machine, which will be used in large part by women religious who are nurses in the Kalay Diocese, which borders on India.

But transport from India and then safeguarding the unit will cost more. Myanmar’s military government has been jailing doctors and nurses and confiscating oxygen supplies.

One oxygen generator could serve up to 50,000 people. A nonprofit called Myanmar Medical Action is a partner of the diocese, using church property to care for the sick.

The sisters in Kalay put themselves at risk not only from the government, but by nursing COVID-19 patients in an area where vaccines are not yet available.

Kat Kelley, who formerly worked for Catholic Charities of Oregon and now works for Catholic Charities USA, called the government action “biowarfare.” If COVID-19 kills people in Kalay, that means fewer potential dissidents, according to the thinking Kelley has heard reported.

The Zomi refugees in Oregon are in anguish, losing friends and relatives daily. Vigils for those who have died and who are sick are common at homes and in St. Joseph the Worker Church.

Catholic Charities USA, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other groups have chipped in for the project. Local officials in India also came on board.

“Lots of deals needed to be done,” Kelley said.

Bill Canny, executive director of USCCB Migration and Refugee Services, got the Hilton Foundation involved in the Kalay oxygen project. Canny knows the region, for all the energy of the local church, lacks modern health care. Poverty and a lack of a tax base makes it impossible.

The country is a hard place for Catholics. In the east-central region of Myanmar, near the Thai border, the military arrested seven workers from the church’s social arm Oct. 18. A senior official from Loikaw Diocese, which covers Kayah state, said the soldiers arrested the social workers who were carrying food and medicine.

It's not uncommon in the region for the military to burn civilians' homes, kill civilians and make arbitrary arrests in the predominantly Christian region, according to church sources.

The church has played a major role in providing humanitarian assistance to those displaced within the country who have taken refuge in churches, convents and makeshift camps since fighting flared up in May.

The arrests of the social workers came just seven days after Immaculate Conception Church in Phruso township was hit by military artillery fire. Five Catholic churches have been damaged by artillery shelling in Loikaw Diocese, while a church and Marian shrine were damaged in Pekhon Diocese during a five-month period.

Kayah, a remote and mountainous state, is regarded as another stronghold of Catholicism in the Buddhist-majority country. About 90,000 Catholics live in the state with a population of 355,000.

Catholic News Service contributed to this story.

To help

Donate at the Catholic Charities website that can be found at go.sentinel.org/2UcBcLq. Contributors can designate a project when giving. Type in “Zomi relief.” To give to the Zomi in other ways, contact donations@ccoregon.org or call 503-688-2653.