Wallace Elementary ESL teacher’s aide Juna Saw was born in a small village in Burma, but her parents moved the family to a refugee camp when she was 8. They hoped to give their children a chance at a better education at camp schools, which continue past 4th grade. Her parents helped care for students living in dormitories, orphaned or sent by their parents to the camps to learn, and Saw learned to appreciate the value of education.
Saw came to America when she was 24, never expecting to see the refugee camp again.
This year, with Spring Break approaching, Saw considered a return trip to her homeland and wondered if her teacher friends and principal at Wallace might be interested in experiencing the visit with her.
“I thought about it for 5 seconds,” says Wallace teacher Diane Royer. “I couldn’t wait to go.”
“I wanted to ask [Principal] Debbie Yarger,” says Saw, “but she has more important things here. I dared not ask her.”
“I invited myself,” jokes Yarger. Fifth grade teacher Ashley Nick rounded out the foursome.
The women made an emotional trip to Maela, the refugee camp of Saw’s youth. I asked them their impression of the children.
“Happy, grateful, polite, respectful,” says Yarger. “I thought the refugee camp was going to be sad. It wasn’t. The kids are happy. Their life is very simple. Do they have all the things that we have? Absolutely not. They don’t have electricity. They don’t have running water. They don’t have flushing toilets. They don’t have a lot of materials in the schools. It’s just different.”
“They’re not like Americans, where we always want more and we try to keep up with the Joneses,” agrees Royer. “They live from the land, and they’re provided some rice rations and fish paste and they make do.”
The women admit life for refugees isn’t easy in the camp, which is surrounded by gates and barbed wire. About 40,000 people live in the camp, “with pigs and chickens running around for their protein source,” explains Royer. “I think we were all pleasantly surprised that people want to go into the camp for a better education.”
Wallace has a large immigrant population – with a particularly large cluster of Burmese refugees.
“We’re right at 25% refugee students now,” says Yarger, “and the only time we lose them is when they move from apartments into houses. They usually can’t afford to purchase in Lake Highlands so we lose them to Garland or Mesquite, but they are really sad to go.”
“We wanted to learn more about where the kids came from and spread an awareness with all of our colleagues that you have to understand a child’s background before you can really understand how to reach them,” explains Yarger. “You have to meet them where they are to help them grow, and we’ve seen so much growth in these kids.”
“Getting to see how kids I’ve worked with for the past six years lived helps me connect vocabulary back to their home,” says Royer. “Like maybe [in class] we’re talking about a circus tent, but they’ve never seen a circus tent, so now that I have the knowledge of what their houses looked like, I can connect better and also I can teach the teachers.”
Seeing and experiencing what the families eat helped the teachers understand how foods on our free and reduced lunch program may not always appeal to refugee students.
“Often there will be a ‘Food for Kids’ backpack sent home on the weekend with bread and chips and juice,” says Yarger, “but that’s not what they eat. They eat vegetables and rice. It’s just different, it’s unfamiliar.”
Saw says her experience living in both worlds has lessons for her students.
“My parents may have worried about what we did not have, but as I grew up I was always happy. Some 5th and 6th graders once asked me ‘where did you get the materials to build your house in Burma?’ I told them, ‘that was my happiest time as a child, when my parents had to replace the roof, and I went into the jungle to collect the leaves. It was like going to Six Flags.’”
Royer describes the Newport Landing apartment community, with many members of extended Wallace families living near one another and helping to raise children together, as similar to the way kids are raised in Burmese villages.
“That’s why I’ve been so proud of the Wallace community and the teachers here,” says Yarger, “because they have shown community to these families. They could have reacted a different way. They’ve really welcomed them. Our business partners made the families feel comfortable, we held adult ESL classes, the teachers have had extra training on how to help the kids – you can always find somebody that speaks Spanish, but you can’t always find someone who speaks Karenni, Chin and Karen.”
When their Spring Break trip was over, the teachers were anxious to get back to Wallace to share.
“The students were thrilled when I showed them pictures – the sixth graders especially,” says Royer. “They would get so excited remembering and talking about places and things in the camps and I thought, ‘why didn’t I just let them do this presentation?’”
Royer says her trip to their homeland is part of her broader message to her students. “I tell them, ‘Keep your language, keep your culture and be proud of it. We went over there to learn from you, just like you learn from us.’”