“Every day is like you are fighting for your life. You are trying to fit in, you are trying to fit in because you started as an outsider, you are a refugee you don’t speak English. I never seem to get over those feelings.”
-Cing Sian Nem, 22, a University of Portland student who came to Oregon from Myanmar at age 15
Her experience as a teen in a new nation energizes her calling
It was the day a woolen coat signified communal welcome and a lifetime of hope.
Cing Sian Nem vividly remembers Christmas, 2016. Her family had recently arrived in chilly Portland as refugees from a murderous junta in Myanmar.
Years before, Cing’s father had narrowly escaped from a brutal slave work detail by scrambling down a cliff. After hiding out in Malaysia, he quietly hustled his family out of the country and eventually made it to Portland. Part of t he Zomi minority in Myanmar, the family delighted in their new city, Christmas and liberty.
“Catholic Charities came and brought us clothing and toys,” recalls Cing, who was 15 at the time. “I remember they bought each member of my family special gifts. I got a really warm coat. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Cing Sian Nem stands on a Portland overlook, wearing the coat Catholic Charities gave her for Christmas in 2016.
She was so excited that she could barely speak. As she looks back, the woolen coat was like a sacrament of warmth and welcome that bestowed strength.
Seven years later, Cing is a University of Portland social work student with an internship at Catholic Charities of Oregon. One of her first jobs was to help carry out a Christmas gift distribution for new refugee families.
“I am giving back,” she says. “I used to be the one getting those gifts. Now I am helping and delivering them. I am excited to do this internship.”
When the family of nine first landed in Portland in 2016, they stayed in an apartment with one bathroom and three bedrooms. Then they entered a Catholic Charities matched savings program that helped them keep enough for a down payment on a five-bedroom house. They moved in in 2021.
“We felt we finally could settle,” Cing says.
The family of Cing Sian Nem stands in front of their new house in 2021.
The family is deeply Catholic. Cing’s grandmother on her mother’s side was the first to join the church from their village in Myanmar. Now, the family attends Mass at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Southeast Portland, which has become a hub of Zomi community in Portland.
Cing attended De La Salle North Catholic High School. When it came time for college, she was attracted to the University of Portland because of its Catholic identity. “I wanted a school where I could be free to practice my faith and not worry about what people will say,” she explains.
While UP was the best fit among the multiple schools that accepted Cing, it also was the most expensive.
“I didn’t give up,” she explains. “I pursued it and applied for lots of scholarships. I really like that school.”
Social work emerged as her field of study because of memories about Catholic Charities as well as the influence of Francis Kham. Kham, leader of the Zomi refugee community in Portland, serves on the Catholic Charities board.
“I want to be like him,” Cing said. “I want to do social work. I want to help people who may not get the resources they are supposed to get. I want to inspire more young people especially in my community.”
Discovering her calling came gradually. When she first arrived in Portland, she didn’t know what to make of the large population of people experiencing homelessness.
Cing Sian Nem, far right, poses with Archbishop Alexander Sample after arriving in Oregon in 2016.
“I had these mixed feelings,” Cing says. “Do I see them as bad people or be more concerned for what was happening and why they are in this state? As I live, as I go to school, as I learn how America works, I can understand why they end up like this. It’s really important to have someone to support you and have a community.”
Her experience as a refugee youth informs her social work. She thinks helping agencies should pay more attention to the social and emotional wellbeing of refugee children.
“I want to be a resource for them,” she says.
The memory of being a refugee teen still causes her to choke up.
“I tried to fit into groups. I tried to fit into the school,” she says. “I tried to be traditional. Every day is like you are fighting for your life. You are trying to fit in, you are trying to fit in because you started as an outsider, you are a refugee you don’t speak English. I never seem to get over those feelings.”
Doubt haunts her at times. But on her best days, she remembers her warm coat and the protection and sense of belonging associated with it.
“I just want people to accept me as a person,” she explains, “seeing me, treating me … like other students, nothing more nothing less.”
Cing Sian Nem graduated from De La Salle North Catholic High School in 2021.