Author’s note: Myanmar is now the official name of the Southeast Asian nation previously known as Burma until the year 1989. Both names are used in the story below. This story was originally published via CU News Corps, an exploratory multimedia site with stories written by CU Boulder journalism students.
She spent five lonely months at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, so when Htee Ku was finally released, she was excited to head home and be with her family in Denver.
Well, sort of.
Home wasn’t exactly the most nurturing place to live for Ku.
Bald and weak from chemo, Ku lived with her father — an alcoholic — and her mother, who, after suffering two strokes in recent years, can barely speak.
Ku, now 22, was 14 when her family obtained refugee status and was placed in Colorado. She was born in a refugee camp, fled to Thailand after the Burmese army killed her grandparents, was randomly placed in the U.S., and almost immediately was diagnosed with cancer. Luckily she beat it. After all of this, Ku thought maybe her toughest days were in the past. However, upon her return from the hospital, she realized her battle was not yet over.
Ku is not the only refugee from Myanmar in Colorado struggling with English. Refugees from Myanmar have one of the lowest assimilation rates in the state, despite their immigration to Colorado beginning as early as 1997, according to a report done by the Colorado Department of Human Services. Starting in 2007, more than 300 refugees have come to Colorado from Myanmar every year. Last year, that number more than doubled with 610 refugees coming to the state from Myanmar.
For information on the history of violence and unrest in Burma that led to the many bouts of refugees fleeing the state, click here.
So it was when Ku went to take her follow-up medication her first night home from the hospital that this looming challenge dawned on her. She had no idea when to take which pills; the instructions were in English.
Luckily for Ku, Frank Anello, the founder of Project Worthmore, stepped in to help. Project Worthmore is a non-profit that works specifically to help Burmese refugees integrate into the local community.
Anello went to check on Ku shortly after her release from the hospital. He quickly realized that she was never going to be able to recover or grow in the environment she was living. He invited her to live with him and his wife, Carolyn, for two years. Ku jumped at the opportunity because she saw a chance for a better future.
During her time with the Anello family, Ku began to understand why learning English was so complicated. For example, there are many different ways to say the same word. One evening Anello asked Ku to pass him the lid to a pot while they were cooking in the kitchen and she was completely bewildered. She only knew this covering device as a top.
“Sometimes when I was talking to them I didn’t know how to explain this,” Ku said. “So I would just wave my hands around and use many different noise…and they would understand me.”
Jamie Torres, the director of Immigrant and Refugee affairs for the city of Denver, says refugees from Myanmar struggle with assimilating in the United States because they already lack literacy in their native language, so getting caught up in English is an even larger hurdle.
Torres also noted that refugees coming from other countries, like Afghanistan for example, may have a great background in architecture or a certain skill set that will help them find work. But refugees from Myanmar who have been isolated either in the country or in refugee camps for so long often come without a specific strength.
“In the Burmese population it has a lot to do with geographical and cultural history,” Torres said. “They’ve largely been outside of a mainstream system so it’s harder to adapt with that as well.”
Another reason the language learning difficulty varies among refugees in the U.S. is because there are varying differences in rules at refugee camps all over the world. For example, in refugee camps in Nepal, you can leave the camp for school and work, but in places like Thailand, you can’t.
Speech-language pathologist Jennifer Wood began working directly with Burmese refugees in the Denver community at their homes and realized early on what a huge issue learning the English language was. She also noted that the difficulties varied among genders and ages.
“A lot of the fathers were able to go and learn English but the mothers did not have the opportunity to leave the home because they had so many children there,” Wood said. “You would see this big gap in who could access English classes and who was actually able to integrate more because of that.”
Wood explained that the men learn the language and then use it to go interact in the community and get a job so that they can provide for their families. The problem with this is that if the women were able to access education, they could pass it on to their children during their time at home with them.
Frank Anello believes that an underlying issue in the education of refugees is the public school system. Despite the fact that Ku graduated from high school, when taking a test to qualify to begin working as a dental assistant, she failed by scoring with only a third-grade reading level.
“In the Burma community, there’s a huge problem with kids graduating from high school and getting a diploma, but not being anywhere near ready for college,” Anello said. “You can imagine that it’s discouraging as a student to be graduated, but to know that you aren’t ready.”
When Ku first entered South High School in Denver, she was walked to class on the first day and then left to figure things out on her own.
“When the teacher took me to the class, I just stared at the teacher the whole day ’cause I didn’t know what to do,” Ku said.
Luckily, Ku was able to identify a Karenni friend at school, despite Ku’s being a Karen. Karen and Karenni are two different ethnic branches found in the different states of Myanmar. Despite their similar sounding names, the groups are actually nothing alike and speak different languages. The girls were able to bond over their distance from home and made it work, learning new words from each other on their walk home from school.
A major cultural difference that startled Ku at first was the fact that “white girls” always smiled when they talked to you. In Myanmar, it is a sign of disrespect to make direct eye contact with someone while holding conversation.
“They have eye contact when they talk to you and they smile,” she said. “We don’t really do that in my culture, we just shake hands.”
Despite these friendly smiles, a few years into high school, Ku began to get lonely. While she could associate with the other girls, she still didn’t know enough words for them to have productive conversations about their days.
Ku misses her home, but she especially misses the culture of her people. She tries to keep in touch with it when she can, for example, by wearing the traditional dress when attending a Karen church service or by practicing her language.
“I came here to learn new skills, but I don’t want to forget my culture,” Ku said. “To me my language and culture is everything.”
One of the biggest things Ku misses about home is the sense of community among neighbors. Unimportant is the fact that these neighbors were so physically close because they were in a refugee camp together. According to Wood, this dedication to community is reflected in the actions of many refugees, especially in the speech clinic. While they may not all be textbook educated, they have learned a vast amount from their experiences. One example she noted was being able to recognize that their child has autism.
“Because these families are so communal, a lot of times the parents come in and know that something is not right with their child, even if it’s their first born because they see them relative to all of the other kids they’re running around with in the refugee camps,” Wood said. “The knowledge base these families bring in with them from living in communities has been mind-blowing to me.”
When Ku was informed she had leukemia, she immediately assumed she was going to die and that this would be the end of her life.
“When I lived in the (refugee) camp and you heard people had cancer, you heard everyone dies, they do not survive,” she said.
But for Ku, her story wasn’t ending there. Despite not yet being a U.S. citizen, she is on track to becoming a dental assistant and hopes that one day she can become a nurse so that she can help others the way they helped her when she was in the hospital. While she does eventually want to return to visit her home in Myanmar, it is the opportunity she is presented with here in the United States that keeps her on track and moving forward.
When Ku realized that cancer wasn’t going to be the end of the road for her, she referenced her personal life motto, one that she first applied when she landed in Colorado eight years ago.
“Just go with it,” she said, beaming.