TULSA — Tawi Buansing interprets the Zomi language at the Tulsa Health Department after every coronavirus press conference. 

Buansing learned about the job through a local church that recognized how the Zomi and Burmese community struggled with everyday tasks such as doctor’s visits, immunizations for their kids and other tasks due to language barriers. 

Since she started, Zomi community members no longer feel left out and feel like they are part of the city now, she said.

“Translating has become my passion because my initial goal was making (the Tulsa Health Department) more accessible for the non-English speaking communities,” Buansing said. “As time went by, I was starting to realize that I was actually making a difference in peoples’ lives in a good way by breaking the language barrier and started building relationships between the community and the organization that I was representing.”

Buansing, who first immigrated to Malaysia before coming to the U.S. with her family, said life was challenging as a minority in Myanmar. She said there was discrimination because of her faith. 

Zomi people are a minority group primarily from Myanmar and also India and Bangladesh. Many are practicing Christians who seek and obtain refugee status due to their religious beliefs.

Almost 7,000 Zomi people live in Tulsa, according to Hau Khai, chairman at Zomi Innkuan Oklahoma, a community organization. 

Tulsa has also been informing the community through regular press updates in the Zomi and Burmese languages after each health department press conference. The department also shares information in Spanish. 

Census Bureau data shows that between 2010 and 2015, 27 percent of the city’s growth can be attributed to immigrants. And the immigrants are in prime working age (25-64). Data shows 72 percent of immigrants are in that age range. 

New American Economy, a bipartisan research institution advocating for inclusive immigration policies, reports that there were nearly 65,000 immigrant residents in the Tulsa metropolitan area in 2017, a 6.6 percent share of the population. Immigrants paid nearly $350 million in taxes and had $1.2 billion in spending power, according to the organization. 

The organization, founded by former New York City mayor and U.S. presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, has previously held a festival in that city that celebrated the contributions of immigrant communities. 

New American Economy recently selected Tulsa, along with 11 other communities and organizations in the U.S., to create immigrant-inclusive measures following COVID-19. The organization will provide Tulsa with data and analysis on the immigrant population to help guide culturally sensitive emergency response measures that ensure all residents are included, regardless of immigration status.

“The immigrant population is both essential to our country’s rapid response efforts and especially vulnerable to gaps in our social safety nets,” Mo Kantner, director of state and local initiatives at New American Economy, said in a statement. “NAE research will support efforts by local communities to work quickly and innovatively to fill critical gaps in federal programs and ensure that response efforts reach all residents.”

The report will parse out data and examine immigrant groups and languages spoken, among other topics, said Krystal Reyes, chief Resilience officer for Tulsa. 

“With that information, we want to be able to target our financial empowerment efforts that we’re planning,” she added. 

In 2017, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum created the New Tulsans Initiative, a road map that focuses on core areas to welcome those new to the city in civic engagement, economic development, education, health and public safety. 

Prior to COVID-19, Bynum was often seen posting photos of naturalization ceremonies to Twitter and Facebook, sharing stories of those he met along the way. 

For the Zomi population in Tulsa, COVID-19 has caused job losses, fear and fewer gatherings, said Khai, from the local Zomi community organization. 

Since COVID-19, large gatherings are discouraged and the Zomi community is strictly following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, which until recently included no public church services, no home visits and no gatherings. 

“Despite the instilled fear of the virus, community members are still fighting to do good – where people are made aware of opportunities and where they are able to serve their community and help those in need,” he added. 

The community has been helping other Zomis in Myanmar, where there is no intensive care unit in their township, Khai said. They have also been providing supplies to those Zomi community members waiting to be resettled who are currently in Malaysia, India and Thailand. 

COVID-19, he said, has taught him a lot about human panic and fear. 

“This has also shown me that this community, as well as our nation, is resilient and helpful in times of crisis,” he said in an email interview. “All around the world, people have been contributing to the efforts of providing resources to hospitals, donating food to those in need and offering service to those who are at high risk. People all around the world are thinking of ingenious solutions to help others and offering their own time, money and resources to make a real difference.” 

In addition to the New American Economy research grant, Tulsa also has a grant from the World Education Service to increase economic mobility among skilled immigrants. 

Other local efforts include a plan to launch a financial navigator to support Tulsans who are having financial issues due to COVID-19. Officials aim to hire bilingual and bicultural individuals to ensure that immigrant Tulsans can access these services, said Daniel Chaboya with Tulsa Community College and part of the citywide Skilled Immigrant Integration program planning team.

“A lot of what we are doing is laying the foundation,” he said. 

Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Associated Press, The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine and elsewhere. She is a Tulsa Artist Fellow. Contact her at kristi.eaton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KristiEaton

The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at msherman@oklahomawatch.org.


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