As Kids Head Back to School, Portland's Zomi Community Prepares for Another Busy Year

Posted by | Connor Skaggs

The East Portland home is bustling with three generations of Zomi refugees, ages from about five to seventy or older, living and working together. Upstairs is a lone poster, a likeness of Jesus with Zomi text under it, that looks down over the otherwise empty living space. It comes as no surprise that after fleeing their homes, the lives of these religiously-persecuted people are deeply intertwined in their faith, which they celebrate being able to practice and explore openly in the U.S.

The Zomi are an oppressed people from Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. In Portland, there’s a small but tight-knit Catholic community of Zomi who rely on each other for help adjusting to life in the US. Many don’t speak English when they arrive, and almost all of them live below the poverty line.

As back-to-school season ramps up, younger members of the community are preparing for another challenging and busy year.

“The language barrier is difficult to overcome,” says Lucy, who has been in-country for three years now. “We require extra attention at school, but it’s difficult when so many people don’t know about our history and culture or what we have experienced.”

Next to Lucy are Mary and Phillip, Lucy’s brother. Lucy is a rising junior, and Mary and Phillip are starting their freshman year this semester. As school starts again, so do their familiar and hectic schedules: classes, tutoring sessions, ESL lessons, and taking care of the younger children in the community. If they manage their time well, they can usually finish their homework in time. If they manage it really well, they can sometimes join a club or play sports.

Mary is looking forward to playing high school volleyball, and Lucy has played soccer off and on for three years. “I tried to join the track team,” she says, “but my parents needed me at home to help out.”

In the midst of this hectic lifestyle, Catholic school is the only place that offers both a sense of normalcy and the extra help Zomi children need to be successful. Smaller classes and opportunities for individual help lessens the risk of falling behind, while the Catholic undertones create a familiar and recognizable atmosphere. But it doesn’t come cheap.

“We require scholarships for school,” Mary says. “We need support, or we cannot continue.”

Phillip nods in agreement. Lucy says, “We want to break the cycle of poverty for ourselves and our families.”

For members of this community, many of whom have difficulty finding steady employment due to the language barrier, a Catholic education is the key to generational change. In addition to better support from teachers and students, some local Catholic schools offer field-specific employment opportunities. “People at my school almost always go to college,” Lucy says. She’s looking forward to applying for part-time jobs in the medical field, referring to an opportunity provided by some Portland Catholic schools.

These young people have already experienced a lifetime of hardship and challenges, and the Catholic faith provides a sense of familiarity to otherwise chaotic lives. Mass, no matter what country or language it’s in, is always the same.

Catholics, not unlike the Zomi community here in Portland, are encouraged—rather, expected—to support each other. It’s a tight-knit community based on mutual love and support during other people’s hardships. It would be hard for many Zomi to find that crucial sense of belonging without their faith or the surrounding community that supports them. “The people in our parish are like our family,” Phillip says.

All three of them want to go to college, but only Lucy knows where. “University of Portland,” she says. She wants to study medicine and briefly mentions wanting to be a nurse practitioner. “My aunt died from breast cancer back in Burma. We did not have enough money to help her. I want to be able to help other people who don’t have a lot of money.”

Mary doesn’t know where she wants to go to college but knows she also wants to go into the medical field: “Surgeon,” she says. “I want to help people.”

Phillip wants to be a lawyer. “Back in Burma,” he says, “the law isn’t fair. It’s controlled by whoever has the most money.” They are all in agreement that, after college, they will use their skills to assist other Zomi refugees searching for a better life in the U.S.

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