In Oklahoma, a Myanmar refugee community worries about Trump's expanded travel ban

Trump's new travel ban expansion will increase prolonged family separations for this Myanmar refugee group.
Suan Mang stands inside his restaurant Zogam Cafe in Tulsa, Okla.
Suan Mang stands inside his restaurant, Zogam Cafe, in Tulsa, Okla.Kristi Eaton

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By Kristi Eaton

TULSA, Oklahoma — Suan Mang's restaurant has helped establish a sense of community for him and fellow refugees from Myanmar's persecuted Zomi minority group living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but President Donald Trump's newly expanded travel ban has caused panic over prolonged family separations in the ethnic enclave.

The refugees and those who help them start over after they arrive in the United States are worried what the expansion of the ban to six more countries including Myanmar (formerly Burma) could mean for the families already facing extreme hardship due to the long separations.

Under the order which goes into effect Feb. 22, immigrants from Eritrea, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania, in addition to Myanmar, will face travel restrictions. The administration said the countries did not meet minimum security standards; all of them, except Myanmar, have Muslim populations of 35 percent or more. An original travel ban targeted Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen -- all predominantly Muslim nations, in addition to North Korea and Venezuela.

Mang, 27, opened Zogam Café, a Thai-Malaysian restaurant, a few years ago, with support from his local community and an entrepreneurial attitude, after resettling in the U.S. in 2012.

“There was a lot of our Zomi community, a lot of the Zomi population is around here,” he said during an interview at his restaurant, located in south Tulsa, on Feb. 3. “Whenever we need help, we can go to the community and ask for help, especially at the church.”

The Zomi people, who also hail from India and Bangladesh, have been known to face persecution for their Christian religious beliefs in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country.

In September, Trump signed an executive order allowing states and local governments to reject refugees. In January, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott became the first governor to announce the state will not accept refugees, but a judge has temporarily blocked the order. And the Trump administration has also severely limited the number of refugees who can be settled in the U.S. in the current fiscal year, capping it at 18,000.Around 30,000 refugees were resettled the previous year. By comparison, in fiscal year 2016, nearly 85,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.

There is a lot of speculation and worry about the new travel ban among the Zomi community in Tulsa and beyond, as a lot of young people have loved ones, including spouses, aged parents and young siblings, still residing in Myanmar. Many of them are in the process of reuniting their families in Tulsa, said Hau Suan Khai, the chair of Zomi Innkuan Oklahoma, an organization that advocates for Zomi people.

“We're really concerned about its effects for the community and the information we access is very limited,” he said, adding that the community is full of panic and confusion regarding the travel ban.

In 2019, nearly 5,000 refugees from Myanmar were resettled in the U.S., according to the Refugee Processing Center, which is operated by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. This is down significantly from 2015, when more than 18,000 refugees from the Southeast Asian country were resettled in the U.S.

Although the new travel ban doesn’t affect refugees directly, Olga Byrne, director of immigration with the International Rescue Committee, said they could still feel the implications.

“There’s no direct impact on resettlement in terms of how that process works and that program. However, refugees absolutely could be impacted depending on how and at what point after their arrival in the U.S. they would be able to petition for a family member,” she said, adding that oftentimes, a refugee is able to petition immediately for a spouse or a minor child. “Sometimes, family members haven’t been located if they were separated in camps.”

She said the travel ban will increase prolonged family separation for the Zomi community and other communities.

“There is a waiver process … but it’s a very high burden that you have to meet,” Byrne added.

Locally in Tulsa, organizations working with the Zomi and the Burmese communities plan to get out the word about the ban through handouts at churches and schools. The YWCA Tulsa, which offers a variety of services, said it has held community meetings in the past.

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow in Tulsa, Oklahoma.