Monday, February 18, 2008


Most of our students are English language learners, but most have Spanish as their native language. As of a few weeks ago, we have a new student who is a refugee from Myanmar - she showed up in my SSR period and in my Numeracy class. Not only is language a huge barrier, there is also her difficult past. Working in her favor, however, is a massively strong desire to learn.

An article came out in today's paper which gave us all more insight.

Here is the text of the article (if the link is bad).

Orphans survive wars, find safety in Bay Area
By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Bay Area News Group
Article Launched: 02/18/2008 01:33:04 AM PST

Kate's smooth brow buckles when she thinks about the soldiers who muscled their way into the house where she lived with her grandmother - plundering belongings, forcing their attentions on her and ordering them to prepare meals.

"The soldiers make me too sad," said Kate, discriminated against as an ethnic minority in Myanmar. "I don't like."

One day Kate, now 16, fled to the home of sympathetic friends in a neighboring town. She learned soon afterward that the soldiers killed her grandmother in retaliation.

After a desperate flight through underground channels of Southeast Asia, Kate has found a lasting safety: She now lives with a family in San Jose. "Baba" and "Mama" are the Rev. Ben and Anne Daniel; she has three siblings.

As rain pounds on the roof of Ben Daniel's church, Kate sits comfortably between her new parents, a delicate girl with shiny black hair and a wide open smile. She has been here little more than a month, but she says this is home.

"Everything OK," she said. "Not tired. Not scared. I happy."

Kate is one of a trickle of refugee orphans finding homes with Bay Area families through a special program of Catholic Charities, one of two agencies that contracts with the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees to place the children.

In such countries as Liberia, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal, children have been driven out by armed conflict or pressed into service by government militias and rebel groups - as combatants, sex slaves and virtual pack mules.

If an adoption always includes risk and reward, these adoptions offer a double dose of both.

Preparing food is now a source of surprise and delight for Kate. She likes oatmeal with hot sauce. At first, she dissolved in giggles at the sight of Baba popping up a skillet of popcorn on family movie night. (Men don't cook in Myanmar). Now they fix dinner together.

Kate dropped out of school after her fourth year to help her grandmother farm corn and beans. She asked to start school the morning after she arrived: "I want right now," she said, laughing. She studies music with Anne and says she hopes to become a minister, like Ben.

Kate's odyssey hardly seems likely for a child, but it is mirrored throughout countries where war and strife have made homelands unlivable. Many have been persecuted for religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation. They have been separated from their parents or seen them killed. The children escape brutality by guts, wit and luck, walking for miles, hiding in jungles, riding on the backs of sympathetic elders to safety - mainly, in refugee camps.

Five million refugees have fled their homelands, according to Refugees International, a non-profit organization. If one includes those who are trapped in their home country, such as in Darfur, that number balloons to 14 million. They can't go home in many cases because home is no more; their villages have been destroyed.

Tracy Weiss read all she could get her hands on about the conflicts that racked the Eastern coast of Africa after she agreed to adopt three siblings from Monrovia, Liberia.

When she picked them up from Mineta San Jose International Airport, Sadiki, the eldest and tallest, stood in front, "scanning everyone, looking for danger in every direction." His sister Maryama tucked in behind him, holding a bag, the U.N. signal for a refugee arrival. Antimana, called "Ansu," crouched behind his two siblings. They wore donated clothes - Ansu, a 1930s-era man's suit.

"I said, 'Hi. I'm your new mom,' " Weiss remembered. "Ansu was the first to break into a grin."

The trio has been living with Weiss in Los Altos for three years and - Maryama counts on her fingers - six months.

Rebels executed the children's Mandingo father, as well as Sadiki and Ansu's mother. The children and Maryama's mother ran from rebels, living in the bush, moving constantly, sometimes getting separated. They settled for a time in Bo, a village in Sierra Leone. Sadiki - he thinks he was 3 or 4 - made many friends there.

"Then things got bad if you are not a citizen," said Sadiki, now 18. "We had to find a way to stay alive."

Sadiki's earliest memory is of a village in chaos, with people running everywhere to escape the approaching rebels. Alone, he held up his arms in hopes someone would carry him to safety. Someone did.

He thinks the family spent five to seven years on the run.

Chatting one afternoon, Sadiki's new mother asked him if he had any photos from his earliest years.

"Mom," he said evenly. "You are running with a whole stack of things on your head. You step and you fall in the river, everything gets ruined."

They eventually made their way to the Bandajuma refugee camp, where his stepmother died from complications of diabetes.

It took them some time to get used to the idea that they could make the four-block walk through their wooded suburban neighborhood to school without getting mugged, that loud pops were not likely to be gunshots. Weiss had to quickly abort a July Fourth trip to see fireworks in San Francisco when the multiple blasts badly shook the children.

While life here brings a sense of safety, negotiating the social minefield of a new culture can prove dicey.

Language is a separator at the outset. Then come the mutual misconceptions of American kids and the newcomers.

The refugee orphans are surprised to see all Americans aren't wealthy and white. Alternatively, few Americans have had to run for their lives.

"One kid said to me, 'Did you ever fight a lion?' " Sadiki recalled, howling with laughter. "I said, 'Yes, two.' "

Many don't even know where Africa is, Maryama said, and they know much less about the violence that devastated her homeland and scarred her family.

"I can't be angry at them," she said. "They don't know. When they know, they care."

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