Zomi refugees in Portland gather in a home to pray for relatives and others in Myanmar suffering a dual crisis: a pandemic and a military coup. Oxygen is in short supply in Myanmar, and Oregon refugees are raising funds to ship an oxygen generator to be used by medical staff at a diocese in the beleaguered west of the country. (Courtesy Francis Kham)
Zomi refugees in Portland gather in a home to pray for relatives and others in Myanmar suffering a dual crisis: a pandemic and a military coup. Oxygen is in short supply in Myanmar, and Oregon refugees are raising funds to ship an oxygen generator to be used by medical staff at a diocese in the beleaguered west of the country. (Courtesy Francis Kham)

Part of the chaos in Myanmar includes a new military government that is jailing doctors and nurses and confiscating oxygen supplies, all in the middle of a respiratory pandemic.

Leaders of the Zomi community of Portland, Indigenous refugees from Myanmar who are largely Christian, are looking to their south Asian homeland with horror. Many have lost relatives to COVID-19. The Zomi of Oregon are responding with prayer and common sense.

Frequent vigils for those who have died and who are sick are taking place at homes and in St. Joseph the Worker Church in Southeast Portland.

Francis Kham, who is some mix of George Washington and Moses for the local Zomi, has begun a campaign to acquire an oxygen generator and ship the automobile-sized machine to a diocesan compound in the west of the country. There is a good chance that Oregon Catholic health care providers can donate a generator, but Kham and Catholic Charities of Oregon are trying to raise $25,000 for shipping. Kham sits on the Catholic Charities board.

New waves of the virus are expected in Myanmar in fall and winter.

“If we can have oxygen ready, that might save a lot of lives,” Kham said.

A military coup in Myanmar in February has resulted in arrests and executions. The army takes medical supplies to its own hospitals. Meanwhile, the price of oxygen is soaring.

Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang of the Kalay Diocese has asked Catholic Charities of Oregon for aid. In a July 23 letter, Bishop Thang said that 500 people in his diocese had died of COVID-19 in 12 weeks. That includes four priests and two nuns. The bishop himself is recovering from infection.

Bishop Thang said 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 cost of shipping the generator is high because it must move in secret markets to avoid detection from military officials.

The Kalay Diocese, which borders on India, is one of the poorest regions of Myanmar and has seen a surge in the COVID-19 delta variant. The church in Myanmar has been seen by some as a foe of the military junta.

The nation’s health care systems are collapsing. Schools are closed. Climate change is being blamed for drought that has stymied crops in the region. Kham said China has sent aid to the military, but little reaches the people. Many predict famine and civil war in Myanmar. “They are very hopeless,” Kham said of his country.

Kat Kelley, director of strategic initiatives for Catholic Charities of Oregon, said that part of welcoming refugees to Oregon is recognizing their legitimate fears and needs regarding their homeland. Local Zomi have many relatives suffering.

“And that means our local Zomi are suffering,” Kelley said, calling the mix of a pandemic and military coup “unspeakably difficult.”

“The junta does not care about civilians,” Kelley said, suggesting that the government is letting COVID-19 kill opponents intentionally. “It’s a campaign of terror.”

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a history of ethnic cleansing. The Zomi fled the country because they did not fit into leaders’ “One Burma” campaign.

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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.