Earlier this month, Ma May Si sat on a stool in the back room of Shwe Market International Foods, a grocery store that specializes in Burmese and Southeast Asian foods.
She described the trip she took with her mother from Matupi, Myanmar, to Malaysia in 2006. They joined their father, who moved away when Si was just one year old so that he could find work and support his family.
In Malaysia, Si said people were always afraid of deportation or imprisonment. “People have to live in constant fear,” she said.
The family stayed in Malaysia for two years before being granted refugee status and entering the United States. In 2009 they finally settled in Colombia.
Si’s trip is one that hundreds of refugees have made from Myanmar to Colombia since 2001 to escape the violence and unrest of the world’s longest civil war.
The number of refugees from Myanmar has risen to become the largest group of refugees in Colombia over the past two decades, according to the Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.
At least 675 refugees have settled here. Si said they stay close, attend each other’s weddings and birthdays, and plan sports and other events together. They also built a community that includes a restaurant, grocery store, and four churches.
Local churches serve the Karen, Mizo, and Kachin ethnic groups, and the Broadway Christian Church provides Burmese language services.
Sai Tai’s Tiger Chef is an authentic Southeast Asian restaurant in northern Colombia that serves a mix of Burmese and Thai cuisine. Tai and his wife Nang Lont opened it in 2019.
Shwe Market International Foods on Vandiver Drive is owned and operated by Myanmar refugee Soethu Hlamyo.
“Basically, everyone knows everyone,” said Si.
The country of Myanmar, called Burma until 1989, is hidden between India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Laos in Southeast Asia. At least 135 different ethnic groups live in a number of administrative areas that include states, regions, territories, and other divisions.
Burma was a British colony in the 19th and early 20th centuries until it became a battlefield between the Allied forces and Japan during World War II. The country declared its independence from Great Britain in 1948 and has since been a melting pot of conflict and unrest between regions, ethnic groups and a military junta.
The armed forces were in power from 1962 to 2011 when a new government began to move towards civilian rule. This year, unrest escalated after the military seized power in February.
Of the nearly 671,500 refugees who have been admitted to the United States since 2003, around 174,000 or 26% came from Myanmar, according to the UN Refugee Agency. They have been the largest refugee group in the United States for 20 years.
A local support network
Refugees are the most vetted group of immigrants coming to the United States, said Samantha Moog, director of refugee resettlement with Catholic charities.
“Refugees are not just any immigrant,” she said. “You survived war and things we could only imagine.”
“We’re really happy and grateful that Columbia is such a welcoming community,” said Moog.
The city has a healthy job market that makes it easier for refugees to find employment, said Moog. There is also a snowball effect when an established group from a country attracts additional newcomers who are looking for a support system.
An organization called the City of Refuge helps those who have settled in Colombia.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support this community has shown,” said Garrett Pearson, executive director of the City of Refuge.
These refugee programs help newcomers with housing, work and financial support, medical connections and schooling, facilitating the often abrupt transition to a foreign country.
In a pinch, volunteers will also address more pressing needs, such as explaining Zoom to parents whose children switched to virtual classrooms during the pandemic.
“It’s a little different for each person,” said Pearson, “and our organization exists such that it is what we need for that person.”
Myanmar refugees in Colombia
Sai Tai came to the United States from northern Shan State in Myanmar. Shan is the largest state in the country and home to numerous armed ethnic groups, which creates persistent political and economic tensions. After being forced into unpaid work, Tai fled in 2005.
He lived first in Thailand and then in Malaysia before applying for refugee status at the UN Refugee Agency in 2009. In 2011 he arrived in Colombia.
“Wherever they send you, we have to go,” said Tai. “It’s better than Asia and our country.”
Once again, Tai had to start from scratch when he arrived in Colombia. The biggest challenges are the transport, the language barrier and the job search.
At first he rode a bike while saving for a car. He took English lessons and learned enough of the language to work in the Kraft Heinz factory in the north of town. He still works there, in addition to his restaurant.
She learned English in the public school system and took classes until she no longer needed it in sixth grade. But cultural barriers remained.
In rural Myanmar, for example, it was perfectly acceptable to wear the same clothes for several days, but here she was teased at school for showing up in one outfit for three days in a row.
Both are now active in the community, but in different ways. Tai sells Myanmar-themed t-shirts and sends the proceeds home. In February and March, Si helped organize the anti-military junta’s demonstrations in front of the Daniel Boone City Building.
However, the recent backlash against immigrants continues to cause problems for Myanmar refugees. They just hope for tolerance and understanding.
“There’s all this anti-immigration policy,” Si said, “and I want people to know that everyone just wants to survive and have a better life.” AC