JEN RYNDA staff photographer
“I waited two years to come to the United States,” says Ngo Hna (pronounced No Nah), a refugee from Burma now living in Rochester.
“When I arrive, they ask me about school,” she says in clear but halting English, “I say, I really want to go but I have no money.”
That was in November 2008. Ngo arrived from a camp in Malaysia with her uncle, speaking not a word of English. When she learned that she could go to the city’s Jefferson High School free of charge, “I was happy. I don’t know how to say ‘more happy.’ But I was very, very happy.”
Ngo, 19, told her story earlier this month at a Night of Gratitude and Understanding at Sacred Heart Cathedral, organized by Mary’s Place, a refugee outreach center and ministry of the Cathedral Community, which worships at Sacred Heart. It was a night for refugees and volunteers to express their thanks for each other.
On this Thanksgiving, many of Rochester’s newest residents will give thanks in their own way for their new lives.
Free education is a big surprise for refugees from places where the poor can’t afford tuition or supplies — barriers that keep them poor and ignorant.
In Burma, Ngo said, her mother couldn’t afford the separate notebooks she needed for each subject. In Rochester, she said, “I am so happy I have so many pencils. I have pens. I have notebooks.” Supplies most Americans take for granted, but life-changers for the refugees. “I am so thankful,” Ngo said.
When a sponsor stepped forward last summer and offered to pay for her tuition at The Aquinas Institute, Ngo, unable to contain her wide smile, says, “I say to myself, ‘I am a rich girl now. I am a smart girl.’”
Already having mastered several Asian languages, Ngo now is studying English and Spanish, and also trigonometry, biology and chemistry. She is doing well.
At Lake Avenue Baptist Church, Hkadin (pronounced Ka- DIN) Lee has encouraged the congregation, which includes hundreds of refugees, to come to the church for turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings, asking them to bring food and the gift of themselves. “I want the Burmese to know our American community and to have a chance to share our blessings. I want them to know this American tradition,” says Lee, who came here from Burma 20 years ago as a student and settled down. She works part time at her church and is a case manager at Mary’s Place, helping the current wave of refugees find apartments and the services they need to start over.
Every year, hundreds of refugees arrive in Rochester, all of them through the sponsorship of the Catholic Family Center. Refugees, as distinct from immigrants, have come to the United States to escape political persecution, often life-threatening persecution. In recent years, between 600 and 800 refugees have settled annually in Rochester, says Jim Morris, associate director for Refugee, Immigration and Language Services at the Catholic Family Center. The largest groups come from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, Congo, Somalia and Iraq. Like earlier generations of newcomers, they are eager to experience the promise of America, to go to school, work, learn American customs, to preserve their heritage while assimilating — while building new lives in new homes.
But it would be wrong to romanticize their journeys to America, or to imagine them on a straight-line upward trajectory to success and happiness. The physical and psychological pain refugees have endured often revisits in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. As they work to learn a new language and to navigate a strange new city, they also must deal with depression, alcoholism, domestic abuse and other manifestations of that trauma; and yet, they are remarkably resilient.
Kathy LaBue, a parishioner in the Cathedral Community and the volunteer director of Mary’s Place, says many of the refugees from Burma — officially known as Myanmar — and Africa have been forced off their land and relocated in camps for many years. They typically arrive with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.
LaBue and some friends first noticed Asian newcomers in their neighborhood in early 2009, walking in flip-flops and wearing lightweight robes. They decided to collect coats and other winter clothing for them.
Within months the volunteer effort had moved into the rectory at the closed Holy Rosary Church on Lexington Avenue and started a new ministry, Mary’s Place. The building is open five days a week and gives donated clothing to anyone in need without question.
Cathedral Community volunteers joined with others from parishes in Webster and from Lake Avenue Baptist; students from the University of Rochester and Nazareth Colleges are coming in ever larger numbers. They tutor children and adults, give away household items and furniture as they are collected, and assist refugees in finding jobs and apartments.
Teenage volunteers play soccer with the children, read to them and share simple treats, such as popsicles and pieces of fruit. Mary’s Place does not serve daily meals, but LaBue leaves donated bread and peanut butter on the kitchen counter every day. By early evening the food is gone.
Mary’s Place is like the early 20th-century settlement houses that dotted city neighborhoods and helped European immigrants acquire the skills they needed to succeed in America.
In one room, 10 computers, each equipped with Rosetta Stone English language programs, are in constant use as dozens of refugees rotate in and out. In the kitchen, small children learn to play computer games and write simple English sentences. At Halloween, teenage volunteers taught the young Burmese how to carve jack-o-lanterns, make simple costumes and practice the art of trick-or-treating. The house quickly transitioned to Thanksgiving mode as the calendar turned to November.
Shelves are filled with donated books and simple games that introduce the children to American culture. On the third floor, six or seven young men practice guitar and drums, calling themselves the Thai Guys and learning to write and play rock songs in English.
The drummer is Moe Oo, 20, who arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand two years ago, attended Freddie Thomas High School and now Monroe Community College. He hopes eventually to study mechanical engineering. Right now, Oo helps his fellow refugees learn the RTS bus system.
LaBue says he’s an emerging leader in the Burmese Muslim community. “He’s a natural. People respect him.”
At the night of gratitude, the Thai Guys opened with a song they wrote, “Our Family”: “We welcome you as our brother or sister. We help each other; don’t hurt each other.”
Eight-year-old Justin Aung was the showstopper as he performed Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
As the band played, teenage refugees rocked with the rhythm and captured photos and video on their iPods and cell phones.
At the end of the evening program, the newcomers stood at the front of the hall with their young Americans friends, and together they sang Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land.”
Helping each other
Muhammad Alias, 18 and a junior at Jefferson High School, arrived in Rochester in 2008 with six other family members from a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand. At Mary’s Place Alias supervises the younger children, making sure they rotate on and off the kitchen computers on schedule. Like Oo, his friend, Alias too is a natural leader, serving as president of the Jefferson Interact Club, which organizes a variety of community service projects.
Alias is confident he will graduate from high school and go to college. He landed his first Rochester job at the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Interact Club has given him a chance to reach out to others in need. “We grow crops (in a school greenhouse and garden) and we sell them,” he says. “We send the money to different countries.”
It is important to the refugees, LaBue says, to find ways to strengthen and stabilize their families while reaching out to the larger community. But the road to acculturation is difficult.
“We see many young women who have had their first child at 12 or 13,” LaBue says. And when they arrive in this country, young people carry the expectation that they will marry in their teens. “But the parents insist that they wait, that they go to college,” says LaBue, a longtime Maplewood neighborhood resident. “They know their children can’t succeed here unless they go to school.”
Hundreds of refugees visit Mary’s Place every week, LaBue says, and while they are patient and eager to give and learn, they are no strangers to hardship. Being with them, she says, is a life-changing experience.
To know the Burmese is to appreciate all we have, LaBue says, and to be constantly surprised by the joy that flows from the simplest of moments.
The youth group from St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in Webster decided to help Mary’s Place with a coat drive last spring. During the summer, students started coming to the center. They played games with the children, helped them read and just had fun.
“It makes me feel like we’re not volunteers, but friends,” says Lisa Nesbitt, 17, a senior at Webster Schroeder High School.
Johanna Whitman, 16, a junior at Webster Thomas High School, tells how a young Sudanese girl, Awal, “attached herself to me when I came in, and then she called me and just wanted to talk.” Johanna keeps a picture of her young friend in her bedroom.
Lisa keeps a picture of her friend Akon, 8, also from Sudan, on her mirror.
“Coming here makes you feel so loved,” Johanna says.
Ngo Hna wants to be a doctor one day. It is easy to understand. She lost both parents to illness in Burma by the time she was 13. She went to live with her uncle in a camp in Thailand and later they were taken to Malaysia, where they lived in dread of being detained by soldiers when they could not offer proof of citizenship.
When she learned that she could go to school in the United States, Ngo Hna was determined to go as far as she can.
“We never saw a doctor in my village,” she says. “… People die and we don’t know why.”
She’s not sure if she will return to her country, but somewhere, she says, she will care for others in need of medical attention.
Ngo Hna has some help on her quest.
Natasha Golub, 26, emigrated with her family from Russia to Virginia 18 years ago. She is now a graduate student in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and a volunteer at Mary’s Place. Golub has reached out to Ngo and invited her to spend a day with her at UR. “She stayed all day and went to all the lectures,” Golub says.
“I know she’ll get into a good school,” Golub says, “and she’ll catch up quickly” as her language skills improve. “Definitely, anything I can do to help. I will do.”