Myanmar Connection: Thousands of Zomi people moving to Tulsa from Myanmar

Zomi lomkhat in sunsim, zansim in anasepna uh ahi, Tulsa World newspaper publishing house ah laigelh minthang khat Kawlgam hong hawh in, Zogam dong hong paitohna thu leh late leh, limlah tuamtuamte tuni Tulsa (Saturday Newspaper) ah hong suaksak hi. A thugelhte nana sim ciat un. Zomi-te tulaitak i dinmun tampi mah zong hong gelhkhia hi.
A diakdiak in a link sung a om photo-te na en le uh cin i theihngiehte (Kawlpi tungsiah, Tedim a kipan) tampi kihel hi. I gam hong phawksak mahmah hi.
Editor's note: Tulsa World religion writer Bill Sherman recently returned from a nine-day trip to Myanmar, where he investigated the connection between Tulsa and the Zomi people of Chin State. 

CHIN STATE, Myanmar - A narrow, rutted, rocky road through steep mountain canyons is all that connects northern Chin State in Myanmar to the rest of the world. 

From that isolated mountainous area, home of the Zomi ethnic group, have come 3,000 Tulsans. 

They worship in a dozen Zomi churches in Tulsa, with services in their native dialect as well as Burmese and English. They work in Tulsa businesses, and their children attend public schools. 

The Tulsa Zomi community is centered in the neighborhoods around Oral Roberts University. On any given day, they can be seen shopping in the Walmart at 81st Street and Lewis Avenue, or at Tulsa's two Zomi-owned stores, the OK Asian Market and Hornbill Oriental Market, both near ORU. 

"We feel that ORU is the heart of the city," said the Rev. Kham Khai, pastor of the Myanmar Christian Church that meets at Victory Christian Center. 

The Zomis are one of several ethnic groups in Myanmar. The nation formerly known as Burma is situated between China and India and until two years ago was under 50 years of a military dictatorship, isolated from the rest of the world and suffering from severe economic sanctions. Newly enacted democratic reforms are rapidly and dramatically changing the country of 60 million people. 

About a third of the 300,000 Zomis live in nearby India, and the rest are from the northern section of Chin State in Myanmar. 

Most are refugees

A few Zomis began coming to Tulsa three decades ago to attend ORU, but most of Tulsa's Zomis have come in the last five years as political or economic refugees. 

Catholic Charities has been the primary agency receiving Burmese refugees in Tulsa. 

"Tulsa is becoming a little diaspora for Burmese people in the United States," said Deacon Kevin Sartorius, executive director of Catholic Charities in Tulsa. 

The agency's Migration Refugee Services works with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees, and for the last five years in Tulsa, nearly all of them have been Zomi, he said. 

"The Burmese people who come here are incredibly smart and hardworking and so appreciative," he said. "They're almost instantly contributing to society. It's very inspiring to see their dedication and perseverance." 

About three times a week, Catholic Charities picks up incoming refugees at the Tulsa airport and helps them with housing, clothing, food and jobs. 

Religion a factor

Religion has been one factor drawing Zomis to Tulsa. 

Chin Do Kham, a native of Chin State who now lives in Tulsa, said that while most Burmese are Buddhists, the Zomis have been Christians for a century and feel comfortable in the Bible Belt. 

He said the Zomi people have strong family ties, so that when one family member comes to Tulsa, other relatives often follow. 

Amber Knecht, who supervises the refugee services at Catholic Charities, said Zomis are drawn to Tulsa because of their faith, and also by a relatively good job market and affordable living. 

"Chin State is predominantly Christian, and the Zomis are very in tune with their faith," she said. "The church is the center of their social life." 

Zomi pastors help

The pastors of Tulsa's Zomi churches, many of them educated in the United States, help their countrymen adjust to life in America. Most of the churches offer English as a Second Language classes. 

"I work as a religious worker. I can go back any time," said the Rev. Vung Niang, pastor of Full Gospel Assembly International at 74th Street and Memorial Drive. Her husband remains in Yangon, Myanmar, where he pastors a large church they founded together 25 years ago. He comes to Tulsa often. 

She said she regularly accompanies Burmese people who do not speak English to job interviews and doctor's appointments, and she helps them fill out employment forms and understand job-safety training material. 

Her church has Sunday services in Burmese and Zomi, and once a month in English. 

Jenks Public Schools has some 300 Burmese students, she said. 

Her daughter, Dim Saan Lun, was 17 when she came to the United States in 2002. She studied English, enrolled at Jenks High School and graduated three years later. 

"I could understand English, but it was difficult to speak," she said. 

She joined the U.S. Navy and became a jet engine mechanic, serving in the Middle East on an aircraft carrier, and then two years in Japan. 

Burmese people like the United States, she said. 

"They can work and pay for their needs here. In Burma, it is hard to find work, especially for young people." 

Language barrier

The Rev. Nang Khen Khup, pastor of the Far East Mission Church at 81st Street and Harvard Avenue, said the Burmese people are hardworking and make good employees. Most are doing well here. However, the older people are less motivated to learn English than the young people. 

He said about 80 percent of them do not speak English. 

"We survive because we help each other." 

More than 50 families own their own homes, he said. 

He said Myanmar is a fertile land, and people there can survive, but not thrive, by subsistence farming. He said foreign investors have avoided the country because it did not have the rule of law. That could change under democratization. 

The Rev. Kap K. Hatlang, of ZBCM of Tulsa Church in Broken Arrow, agreed that most Burmese in Tulsa are doing well, and that those over age 30 have difficulty with English. 

"The American people are so good to us. We are so thankful for the American people, and the Tulsa people," he said. 

Tulsa known in Chin State

Tulsa is well known among Zomis in Chin State, Myanmar. 

"We call Tulsa the Zomi capital of the USA. Most Zomis know of Tulsa, even if they don't know of New York City or Los Angeles," Kham said. 

The Rev. Cin Lian Sum, associate pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Kalaymyo, Myanmar, said 300 people from his village in Chin State have relocated to the United States, many of them to Tulsa. Most of them are political refugees. 

Zam Ngaih Man, the wife of a pastor in Kalaymyo, said her brother, Dal Khek, fled Myanmar as a refugee and went first to Malaysia and then to Tulsa, where he now lives. 

The Rev. Go Za Nang, founder and senior pastor of the largest Assemblies of God in Myanmar, with 1,700 members, estimated that 80 members of his church have moved to Tulsa in the past 10 years. He was in Tulsa in October for a reunion, where he saw many of them. 

At his Palm Sunday service in Kalaymyo, at the request of a visitor, he asked people who had relatives in Tulsa to raise their hands. Twenty-five hands went up. 

Some 300 to 400 members of his congregation now live in various cities across the United States, he said. Some immigrated because of political problems, but most came for the economic opportunity. 

"They were making (the equivalent of $1) a day, not enough to even buy food for a family," Nang said. 

Three of his brothers and a sister moved to Australia. 

Nang said most people in Myanmar are happy about the changes in the nation. 

Khai Pu was 18 when he came to Tulsa in 2009. He spent most of his life in a small village in Chin State, and in 2007 he left his homeland with his parents as political refugees after trouble with the government that he did not want to discuss. They were refugees in Malaysia for two years before getting permission to enter the United States. 

He is a senior at Jenks High School and plans to study business at Tulsa Community College. 

Cecilia Pau Cing, a case worker for Catholic Charities in refugee resettlement, came to Tulsa with her husband and son from Chin State in 2009 after two years as a refugee in Malaysia. 

"We had a problem with the government soldiers," was her only explanation of why they left. 

The exodus begins

The exodus of Zomi people to Tulsa began with Kham, who was raised in a small village in Chin State. He walked two days from his village to attend eighth grade in Tedim, a small city on a mountaintop that is the informal capital of the Zomi people. He later moved to Yangon, the former capital and largest city in the country, to continue his education. 

Eventually he made his way to Tulsa to attend Oral Roberts University in the 1970s. He is well-known not just in the Tulsa Zomi community, but also in Chin State. He has taught doctoral students at ORU and at universities in Europe and the Far East, and he is involved in leadership training among Christians worldwide. 

Now a U.S. citizen, he travels to Myanmar several times a year. Last week he opened a permanent office in Yangon to help the Burmese people through leadership development, business training and social programs. 

Some may return

With the rapid changes in Myanmar creating new economic opportunities and political freedoms, some Burmese people in Tulsa may return to their homeland. 

"People are expecting to see their sons and daughters coming home," Nang said after a Good Friday service in Kalaymyo. "It's amazing. Everybody is talking about it." 

Pu is among those who plan to return. 

"I'm not going to stay here. I miss my village and my friends," the Jenks student said. 

"I have things I want to do in my village. I want to teach them how to get a better life." 

Cing at Catholic Charities said she likes living in the United States but hopes to return to Myanmar. 

"I miss my country. I love the mountains," she said. 

Khup predicted that 80 percent of Burmese in the United States will return, but not right away. 

Kham said the Burmese community in Tulsa will be torn about going back because they will now have children and grandchildren in America. 

Myint Swe, the patron - or president - of Asian Wings Airways, in a meeting in his office in Yangon, said that under military rule over the last 50 years, many of Myanmar's brightest and most educated people left the country. 

"We expect many people will come back in the next two to five years," he said. 

"Our country is going to be a land of opportunity."  

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