Refugee students at Wallace: ‘It’s just a different level of poverty’

Liaison Juna Saw escaped Burma, first to a refugee camp, then to America.
Liaison Juna Saw escaped Burma, first to a refugee camp, then to America.

It’s plain to see that Debbie Evans Yarger, principal at Wallace Elementary, takes great pride and enjoyment at the diversity she sees in students and parents at her school. Walking through her halls, she may find students whose parents graduated from Lake Highlands High School – possibly even Wallace – sitting in classes next to children who escaped war-torn countries and unimaginable conditions.

“We’ve got kids who’ve been living in refugee camps in Thailand and, until recently, never held a pencil, never used an indoor toilet, never held a breakfast tray,” she told me as smiling, well-behaved children walked down bright corridors.

In the six years Yarger’s been principal, she’s seen big changes.

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“Our economically disadvantaged population has greatly changed with the influx of the Burmese refugees,” said Yarger. “We have a sizable number coming from the same area – we’ve gone from 33 kids to 152 – and that is great because they have similarities. It’s just a different level of poverty.”

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The children from Burma, a country renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military dictators who took it over, now make up about 20% of the school’s population. The children are bright and enthusiastic, Yarger says, and the parents attend school events, though they don’t understand a word of English.

It hasn’t always been easy.

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Johnette Peck coordinates with classroom teachers to keep ESL lessons in sync.
Johnette Peck coordinates with classroom teachers to keep ESL lessons in sync.

There are 57 dialects spoken in Burma (students primarily speak Chin, Karenni, Karen and Burmese) so incoming students and parents struggle to communicate with teachers and with each other. Some cling to the hope they’ll soon go back to the home – and the family – they had to leave behind.

To help with the transition, Yarger hired Juna Saw, a liaison who had been a Burmese refugee herself and speaks two dialects, and an additional ESL teacher to help students master English. (Wallace already had about 180 students, mostly Spanish speakers, for whom English was a second language.)

“I think our community has done a fabulous job of welcoming these parents and families. It has really broadened our horizons at school. Our parents have coat drives on their own [a cold day in Burma is 70 degrees], and they organize a summer school which our teachers volunteer to teach for – it’s amazing. Prestoncrest Church organized a shoe drive and other groups help out. In the settlement process that brings them here, they are given A towel and A dish, then in three months they are expected to be self-sufficient.  I’m very proud of the way the Wallace community welcomed them. They are a part of our school.”

“We feel that, every year, every child deserves to grow at least one year academically,” Yarger told me. “Of course, that depends on where their starting point is. Many didn’t go to school in Burma or in the refugee camps, so they may have missed the foundational blocks. They’ve got gaps.”

Diane Royer works with fifth grade Burmese refugees.
Diane Royer works with fifth grade Burmese refugees.

Yarger let me sit on a session of fifth graders, who were being coached by ESL teacher Diane Royer to give an oral presentation to their classmates. One truth is universal – fear of public speaking – but these students were prepared and nervously excited.

“These kids are super-smart,” said Yarger, while the students beamed with pride. “If I had to go to Burma or Thailand and take a test in their language, I would make an F!”

Picturing the shoe on the other foot made those kids’ day.

If you’d like to help the Burmese refugee students at Wallace Elementary, visit the PTA’s website here. The PTA hosts fundraisers to aid students and their parents, plans events to bring the community together, and supports hard-working teachers throughout the year.

A world map indicates how far students have come and the location of their village.
A world map indicates how far students have come and the location of their village.
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  • Pumpkin

    That wasn’t part of the commentary, was it? I simply stated the blatant contradiction to what was said.

  • TIguy

    And accidents don’t happen either do they? Here or there.

  • Shannon Kidd

    Awesome article!! And, just to let everyone know, Amy Williams at Boymom Designs also donates a portion of her proceeds to Burmese immigrants.

  • Pumpkin

    Just because parents at MPE don’t want the school to go the way of Northlake and end up 4% white doesn’t mean we are snobs and as the other person said no one ever called people “dirty apartment folks”. No one wants the apartments to all go away, but rather they want balance. The beef that the vocal at MPE have is that the apartments are not spread across the 3 vicinity schools and MPE has the bulk of them already and expanding brings more apartments. We are currently about 60% minority. Obviously those at MPE do not have a problem with diversity or they wouldn’t be there and obviously are not snobs as you say. The PTA provides a lot of support to these kids in the way of camp scholarships and so on. But if you spread the population that does all the work, raises all the money, and provides all the support too thin, the school suffers, and that’s what happens when a school becomes mostly apartments. It’s a fact. See Northlake and Skyview for a couple of prime examples.

  • Pumpkin

    Morgan said “The parents CONTINUE to have kids they can’t afford and since the kids ARE BORN HERE….” Perhaps you should pay more attention to what was said. Your comment that birth control is not available or expensive where they come from has no relevance to the comment as she said it happens HERE not THERE and birth control is available HERE.

  • Gotperspective?

    Hey Morgan, last time I checked birth control was not available in sub-Saharan Africa (6% of VM population) and certainly, it is not available in many parts of Mexico (40% of VM population). It is also expensive in Mexico when it is available and there is a very unreliable supply chain. I asked a 10 year old refugee from Liberia what his mom liked best about America. His response: My mom gets pills here so she doesn’t have to have any more babies. I asked “What do you like best?” He replied: “They gave me my first pair of shoes at the airport when I got off the plane.” Read a newspaper every once in a while, it might help you generate some empathy.

  • MPE

    Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. When has anyone from WRE or MPE ever called these people “dirty apartment folks”. That has NEVER been said…at least not in the realm of these blog comments. Just because Wallace has more diversity than either WRE or MPE, it doesn’t give you any reason to call us snobs. That’s the way the lines are drawn…Wallace just so happens to have a lot more racial diversity.

    If you have read any of the previous posts on these expansion talks, you will clearly see that I called out Carol Toler for mentioning the racial background of a mother of three. I think that was completely unnecessary and has no merit in these articles.

    My parents were born in poverty in a third-world country and worked their butts off to put me and my siblings through the best possible outcome. Why do you think WRE or MPE parents don’t want that for those refugee children? Just because we don’t live in the same neighborhood and don’t have the same demographics, it doesn’t mean we are snobs. To some South Central Dallas people, you are probably a snob yourself.

  • morgan

    The other side to this is that many of these families (or couples who have not yet had kids) come here and understandably due to lack of education and not knowing English, are only qualified for low-paying minimum wage type jobs. I know this because my best friend works in refugee resettlement and helps families find housing in Dallas. Many are placed in Vickery Meadow and Lake Highlands. The parents continue to have kids they can’t afford and since the kids are born here they are automatically granted citizenship which allows them free education, access to Medicaid, etc. I have no patience for people who have kids they cannot afford. It’s those very families (sadly, mostly Hispanic, Black, Refugee, etc) who are ruining our neighborhoods (Vickery Meadow is a prime example of a once nice neighborhood that is a total slum and filled with low-income families who have kids they can’t afford.

  • Iconoclast27

    This is a story that so many of the WRE and MPE snobs need to read when they rail against the influx of dirty “apartment folks” into their local “neighborhood” schools. A lot of the kids in those rougher apartments want to succeed just as much as the privileged kids who live in White Rock Valley and Merriman Park Estates (or pick your well-heeled subdivision), and their parents have the same hopes and dreams for them as well. These kids are assets to the community, if for no other reason than they will be the ones to teach us about easily life can deal you a terrible hand, and how others have to deal with adversity that many of us will never appreciate. A lot of times the only difference between “us” and “them” is that we were simply lucky, by fate and through no merit of our own, to not have been born in a war torn and viciously poor country.

  • Proof Positive

    I also work with the Outreach program at St. Pats and these kids are AMAZING! They ARE smart and are also very helpful and kind. Love, love, love!

  • Liz

    Great story representing the fabulous staff at Wallace Elementary and all the people from near and far that have made Lake Highlands and Wallace their school and community home!