Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel
Cecilia Nuam Sian Kem, like other girls in Portland’s Zomi community, wears a white lace mantilla at Mass.

Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel

Cecilia Nuam Sian Kem, like other girls in Portland’s Zomi community, wears a white lace mantilla at Mass.

Joseph Pau Lam Mung stands before his community at St. Joseph the Worker Parish after the Zomi Mass one Sunday in January. He had purchased two goats that were slaughtered and cooked in celebration for the evening. One was slaughtered in honor of a Zomi priest visiting the Southeast Portland parish on his way home to Myanmar. The other was slaughtered as a thanks to those who helped welcome and care for his family during their first three months in America.

Mung is a convert to Catholicism, though his wife and children were all raised in the faith. The Myanmar native spent 10 years as a refugee in Malaysia before he was able to move his family of nine to Portland.

Standing not far away is Francis Khampi. He is translating Mung’s Zomi words of thanks into English. Khampi serves as president of the Zomi Catholic Community of Portland organization and works for the Asian Family Center as the community education worker for the Zomi and Burmese community.

Like most Zomi people, Mung and Khampi are Christian. The Zomi are an ethnic minority who come from the mountainous Chin state in Myanmar, formerly Burma, in Southeast Asia. French missionaries brought Catholicism to the region in 1939. The state is rural. There is little infrastructure: few roads, almost no electricity, no running water. And the population has been persecuted since the 1960s when General Ne Win overthrew the Burmese government. After decades of British rule, the general and his military dictatorship tried to reject Western culture and religion and assimilate the entire country. Budhism was the state religion. Christianity was considered Western.

Christians persecuted

As Christians, the Zomi are minorities in the country and they are persecuted for it. Chin-language Bibles or other religious material were prohibited under the 1965 Censor Law. Churches have been destroyed. Restrictions limit the renovation and construction of church buildings. The government restricts conversions. According to a Human Rights Watch report from 2009, Chin religious leaders and other Christians failing to follow religious restrictions and requirements could face arrest, imprisonment and death.

According the same report, people living in the Chin state have faced extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and mistreatment, forced labor, restrictions on movement, confiscation of property and limits on religious freedom.

After an uprising in Chin state in 1988, thousands were killed and imprisoned. Government paranoia about further uprisings has led to even more killings and arbitrary arrests.

After Khampi’s older brother was arrested in Myanmar, government authorities kept watch on the family. For six years, his brother spent time in a prison labor camp. One account of such camps in the Human Rights Watch report listed harsh conditions. For example, when a prisoner died, often due to disease, guards would not unlock the deceased inmate chained to the other prisoners. Instead, the leg would be chopped off and the body thrown away.

After the eventual release of Khampi’s brother, he was asked to report to the authorities weekly. Soon, he escaped the country. And his family, including Khampi, followed. Khampi paid more than $1,000 for a driver to smuggle him in a car with 10 others into Malaysia. The journey took two weeks.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees and migrant rights. So, refugees like those coming from Myanmar are not allowed to attend schools, find traditional jobs or access health care. The government does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented workers, so the Zomi refugees  live in fear of deportation. It’s not an unfounded fear. Khampi was deported after two years living in a jungle refugee camp. In 2008, he was deported to Thailand with only the clothes he was wearing and was sold to a human trafficker. With the help of a friend and local church, he was released and made his way back to Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur.

Khampi went to work at the local community school, Dignity for Children Foundation. Because refugee children are not allowed in Malaysian schools, the school was created for Zomi refugee youngsters with the help of the U. N. High Commissioner for Refugees. 

Khampi made the journey to the United States from Mayalsia in 2015 as part of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program.

More families are seeking refuge in Portland based on the blooming Zomi Catholic faith community here. As of February, the community consists of about 30 families and 150 people. In the broader Portland Zomi population, there are as many as 500 people.

In the summer of 2016, the archbishop for Chin state came to Portland from Myanmar. He was able to celebrate 12 confirmations, two marriage vow renewals, two baptisms and five first Communions.

Not looking back

Most in the Portland Zomi community have not come to America with hopes of moving back to Myanmar, even after the country has seen some political changes since 2015.

“If we go back to Myanmar, the major concern would be: What are we going to do?” says Khampi.

Though reliant on agriculture, Chin people have been forced to labor for the local government, cutting back the time that could be devoted to farming. Combined with the mountainous terrain that easily can become exhausted or eroded, farmers often aren’t able to produce enough for their families.

In a speech to the English speaking congregation at St. Joseph the Worker, Khampi showcased the difficulties among refugees in his community who have settled here.

“We never give up,” he said.

“We work hard and pay 60 percent of our income to rent. Most of the time, [we have] not even enough to pay our bills,” Khampi explained. “We continue together as a community helping each other.”

The Zomi men and women at St. Joseph Parish did not know each other in Myanmar. But they are brothers and sisters in Christ, says Khampi.

Khampi says that the Zomi talk about coming to the United States as a blessing from God.

“We even call the U.S. second heaven,” he says.

Immigrants a gift

Father John Amsberry is the pastor at St. Joseph the Worker where the community has centered itself.

He says he sees his Zomi parishioners as an incredible gift to help pull the surrounding community out of isolation and materialism.

The way the community prioritizes God first makes their faith joyful and beautiful. He honors the choice they’ve have made to make themselves better instead of bitter of their life journeys.

“I’m just grateful for the gift of the Burmese community,” he says.

Khampi told the congregation that his refugee community is not in the country to bring harm but that they aspire to keep and grow in the Catholic faith together.

“We knew that America is a nation of milk and honey, which means to us that the country receives a blessing from God,” he said.

“[The] U.S. is the only country that helps vulnerable people and protects their lives,” said Khampi. “These are the values we have kept in our mind and have given us hope.

“We don’t care about who has what. We value how American people value others, especially about life,” he said.

Khampi told the congregation that he received aid for housing and food when he first arrived in the United States. He pointed out that this was from tax dollars paid, in part, by those in the room.

“Your tax money gave us hope, faith and life. I’m sure that your tax money given to me was wisely spent.”