Monday, October 21, 2013

After much hardship, thriving in a new land

Sixth-grade teacher Natalie Rosati (right) helps students (from left) Baw Reh, Sarah Trefz, and Kyaw Kyaw during a presentation at Oaklyn Public School. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Sixth-grade teacher Natalie Rosati (right) helps students (from left) Baw Reh, Sarah Trefz, and Kyaw Kyaw during a presentation at Oaklyn Public School. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

By Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Kyaw Kyaw did his homework in a candlelit hut. Books were shared. Paper was precious, too.

There are no candles but plenty of books, paper, and power at the Oaklyn Public School, where 11-year-old Kyaw Kyaw (sounds like cha cha) is thriving in sixth grade.

"He's better here," says his uncle, Kai Zu, who, like Kyaw, left a refugee camp for the United States in 2009 and lives in a borough apartment. "It's wonderful."

Twenty-two students whose families fled Burma, the troubled Southeast Asian nation also known as Myanmar, are enrolled at Oaklyn's sole school, a weathered but well-kept structure built on Kendall Boulevard in 1926.

Oaklyn is sending an additional six Burmese refugees to Collingswood, its receiving high school district, for grades 10 through 12. All of the students are among the 512 Burmese adults and children whom Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Camden has resettled in South Jersey in the last five years.

Most of the newcomers reside in older suburban communities along transit lines in Camden and Atlantic Counties. Some have moved to Oaklyn after Catholic Charities initially found them housing in nearby towns.

By all accounts, the Oaklyn students - and their families - are doing well, despite legacies of ethnic or religious persecution in Burma, and privations and dangers in the refugee camps in countries such as Thailand.

Like Kyaw's uncle, who works at a Wal-Mart in Cherry Hill, the majority have jobs. A Burmese refugee named Mad Shin, 41, bought an Oaklyn bungalow with his wife, who works for a Gloucester County food company.

Three of their children are enrolled at Oaklyn Public, and the oldest, who is 14, has become so English-proficient, she translates for her dad.

Longtime school board member Bill Stauts worries, however, that the district - with barely 400 students and a $7.5 million budget - has more than what he calls its "fair share" of Burmese refugees.

Stauts expressed his concerns at a Sept. 30 Borough Council meeting and to me when I called him last week.

Speaking as a private citizen, the retired insurance broker, 71, says: "These kids have had a tough life. They're not bad kids. We don't have any problems with them.

"I'm perfectly happy to accept the kids we should be accepting, to accept our percentage, and provide the services we can to our fair share. But not to somebody else's fair share."

Kevin H. Hickey, the executive director of Catholic Charities in the diocese, says such concerns are not new. "It's a legitimate issue, and we're concerned about it. We're always trying to figure out 'how many is too many' for one community. We can always do a better job."

No new arrivals from Burma have enrolled at Oaklyn this year. The school saw only one in 2012, principal Jen Boulden says.

Also, Hickey notes that the total number of all refugees coming through his office has fallen to 100 annually from a peak of 300 a few years ago.

The smaller number strikes me as more practical - particularly after I talk to Liz Solowey, Oaklyn's dynamic ESL teacher. "Some of these kids are literally coming from a hut on the side of a mountain to [life with] electricity, running water, shoes on their feet," she says. "But they want to learn. They're never absent. They want to be here seven days a week."

The enthusiasm is evident when I visit Kyaw's class. Even during some sort of grammar lesson, the three Burmese students and all their classmates, for that matter, seem bright and engaged.

Something good is happening here, and Oaklyn and Catholic Charities need to make sure their partnership continues to flourish.

"We need to reach out" to the community, Hickey says.

"Let's have a conversation."

Yes. By all means do.

kriordan@phillynews.com856-779-3845 @inqkriordan