Compared to its neighbors and coastal states in the United States, Oklahoma is less familiar with refugee resettlement and receives fewer refugees and asylum-seeking communities. Between 2003 and 2015, 2,986 refugees called Oklahoma home; and 80% of them are Burmese who fled from the atrocities by the Burmese military; by 2017, a total of 3,520 Burmese people reside in the state of Oklahoma. To smoothly adjust to life in Oklahoma, a local nonprofit, the Spero Project, fills in the gap and provides services, from language programs to legal assistance, to resettled communities arriving from different parts of the world.
Started at first as a six-week conversational English session 13 years ago, co-founders Brad and Kim Bandy found their passion in helping the Burmese community and went on to create the Spero Project as a 501c (3) organization in 2009. The organization’s mission is “to welcome newly resettled community by connecting new neighbors to people, resources, and learning opportunities that make Oklahoma City a place of belonging”. By virtue of this mission, the organization offers support in four focus areas: supporting students, resourcing adults, partnering with refugee community leaders, and educating Oklahoma City on issues affecting refugees. In 2021 alone, more than 260 students and 400 adults participated in programs operated by the Spero Project. Co-founder, Kim Bandy, conveyed in an interview with East-West Center Young Professional Su Myat Noe, that “I feel so honored and humbled to engage with the refugee community and learn from them, and they have positive impacts on my life and that of my family as well”.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization also looked for ways to better accommodate Burmese and other refugee communities. For instance, the organization implemented a notable Digital Tutoring Program. The program connected refugee students with local volunteers to assist in doing homework and to help ease the stress refugee parents had due to the language barrier and unfamiliarity with online learning. Burmese parents who participated in the program felt relieved knowing their children were being taken care of in a time of difficulty.
To better assist Oklahoma’s refugee community, the Spero Project also incorporates suggestions from refugees and ways for them to participate in programs directly. Sang Rem, a Lead Community Support Specialist at the Spero Project, was once a newly resettled refugee who fled Chin State, Myanmar with her family. Reflecting upon her experience of arriving in Oklahoma and getting assistance from the Spero Project, Sang said in an interview with East-West Center Young Professional Su Myat Noe, “I felt like there is always someone who would help me and my family no matter what.”. According to Sang, it is crucial for the newly resettled community from Myanmar and other countries to receive support from such an organization with staff members who also went through the difficult journey of resettling themselves.
In 2021, the Spero Project has expanded its team in anticipation to welcome newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan. Co-founder, Kim Bandy expressed how support from the US government is crucial in refugee resettlement, not only for Afghan and Ukrainian refugees but also for refugees from Myanmar.
Su Myat Noe is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master’s student at The University of Oklahoma’s College of International and Area Studies. Her interests include International Development and Human Security Issues/Policies in Myanmar and Southeast Asia.