Overcoming Challenges

To Pursue Dreams

Jenjira May Htoo

Former Karen Refugee Overcomes Educational

Challenges to Pursue Master’s Degree

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Jenjira May Htoo is currently a graduate student in Information Design and Technology at the SUNY Institute of Technology. She is a Karen refugee whose family was originally from the Karen borderlands between what is now Thailand and Burma. She was born and brought up in a Refugee Camp in Thailand and moved to the United States in Fall 2007 after living at Mae La refugee camp.

Jenjira was 18 when she arrived in Utica, New York. Unfortunately due to her age she was not allowed to attend the local high school. Instead she was placed in the New Comer Program, a special program for refugee youth aged 17 to 21. This group was diverse and individuals had different educational backgrounds.

Jenjira spent two months in the New Comer Program and started seeking employment. Her first job was at Turning Stone Casino, where she worked as a housekeeper in the hotel. After working full time for a year and half and saving up some money, she started thinking of pursuing more education. Jenjira decided to enroll at MVCC. For her first two semesters she attend the ESL program. After completing ESL Jenjira enrolled as a fulltime student. While attending school full time she also had a job as a fulltime CNA (certified nursing assistant).

In May 2012, she became the first person in her family to graduate with a college degree, earning an Associate in Psychology. She was also the first person to pursue higher education from the group of Karen/Burmese refugee youth who came to the U.S in 2007-2008 and did not have the opportunity to attend high school in Utica, New York. In December 2013, she graduated from SUNY-IT with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Sociology.

Jenjira was a member of the Psychology Club, the American and Refugee Students for Closer Connection, and an active volunteer with Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica, NY. She is interested in helping her Karen community, and youth in particular, as well as survivors of trauma. She is also interested in helping girls and minorities enter STEM fields.

To me, success means to achieve the goals I have set for myself, and to be satisfied to what I have.

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A dream of Education

and Giving Back

Pawsansoe Karen Bree

Former Karen Refugee from Burma
Resettled to the United States in June 2008

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Pawsansoe Karen Bree was 19 years old when she arrived in the U.S. as a Karen refugee from Burma on June 19, 2008. She escaped the ethnic conflicts in Burma after experiencing several acts of violence by it’s government. Her family was forced to relocate countless times to avoid death, building bamboo houses at each new location, until eventually fleeing to a refugee camp in Thailand.

In Thailand life did not improve much for Paw and her family. They were never allowed to leave the refugee camp or return to their home country. She spent more than 13 years in the refugee camp with a small amount of land, no running water or electricity, and no access to education beyond 12th grade. Paw hoped to be able to see the rest of the world and attend school.

Paw’s situation changed when her sister grew ill in Thailand. A family friend working in the United Nations heard of the illness her sister, Lay Naw Soe, was dealing with, resulting in Lay Naw Soe along with 2 other siblings being sent for treatment in the U.S. After turning 18, Paw was able to join them.

Paw was resettled by the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees where she attended the Newcomer Program to learn English. Unfortunately this program did not offer a high school diploma, a setback for Paw, who dreamed of continuing her education. This setback served as a motivating factor for her to work harder.

After two years of studying English she enrolled in Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). While at MVCC she was an active student, founding the club American and Refugee Students for Closer Connection to increase understanding and support between the two groups. She ultimately graduated in the top ten percent of her class in 2013 and was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship. She continued her studies at Hartwick College, graduating with her B.A. in International Relations in 2015. During Paw’s time at Hartwick College she studied abroad in 6 countries: South Africa, Cuba, Thailand, Chile, Nepal and Jordan.

Two siblings and Paw’s mother remain in Thailand. Her father passed away in 2011 while Paw was already in the U.S. Sadly, as is the case for many refugees, due to the situation she was not able to return to see him again before he passed. In 2014, Paw returned to Thailand as part of her study abroad program and worked on building a library for displaced children on the border of Thailand and Burma. Paw is now pursuing her M.A. in International Relations through Webster University, which will take her to five more countries including a return to Thailand to follow-up on the library project. Paw has a long term commitment to help other refugees and displaced people who were in the same situation as her. Fortunately, she was able to pursue her dreams and hopes she can make this a reality for others.

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Seizing Opportunity

in Order to Reach Success

Trinh Truong

Former refugee from Vietnam

Resettled to the United States in 2001

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Trinh Truong was 3 years old when she arrived in the US as a Vietnamese refugee on March 8th, 2001. Her grandfather fought alongside American allies during the Vietnam War. After the war, the Northern Vietnamese had imprisoned her grandfather and her entire family had to go into hiding in the jungles. In 1994, as reparation for the abuse that her grandfather had suffered in prison, her grandfather, her grandmother, and her uncle were eligible for political asylum in the United States and decided to take the opportunity.

The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees helped her grandfather and uncle acquire fluency in English, and helped her uncle obtain an industrial job at Utica Converters. The Refugee Center also played a major part in helping her family rent their first apartment on Kemble Street.

In 2001, Trinh and her mother were finally able to come to the United States under refugee status. The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees again played a huge role in their transition and settlement. Trinh’s mother, Trang, took classes at the center to gain fluency in English. Trinh and her mother were also granted an apartment on Genesee Street for a few months, courtesy of the Refugee Center. They eventually moved into the apartment where the rest of their family was staying, Eventually, their family would go on to purchase a house on Elm Street, where they live to this day.

Since 2001, Trinh and her mother have become American citizens. Also, Trinh has worked very vigorously to succeed in her studies and will graduate in 2015 in the top margin of her class. She understands that education is the most valuable tool in relation to socioeconomic mobility, and does not take it for granted. Her goal is to take care of her mother like her mother has worked laboriously to take care of her.

At school, she is very involved in clubs such as Model United Nations, Speech and Debate, and Future Business Leaders of America. In the past year, she established the Culture Club, which connects English as a Second Language students with mainstream students to promote social inclusion and cultural appreciation.

She is a very invested leader in her community. As an advocate for constitutional rights, she is the youngest board member on the Central New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She is also a founding member and President of the Utica Youth Common Council, as well as intern and youth representative for Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi of the 119th Assembly District.

As a fellow of the Central New York Diplomatic Youth Fellowship, Trinh will be representing Central New York as a Youth Delegate to the United Nations this summer (August 2014). She will be working to solve international youth issues with young leaders from all over the world.

Trinh still has a large number of family members back in Vietnam. Her current goal is to attain her JD as well as her PhD in international and constitutional law. Ultimately, she wants to become the first Vietnamese Secretary of State or a Supreme Court Justice.

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Becoming a Successful Professional

through Continuous Effort

Thein Kyaw

Immigrant from Burma

Arrived in the U.S. in 2007

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Thein Kyaw is as a Database Assistant at Special Metals Corporation and holds a B.S. in Computer Information Science from SUNY Institute of Technology. Thein is a Rakhine (Arakanese) immigrant from Myanmar (Burma) who relocated to the United States in the Fall of 2007.

Thein was 21 when he immigrated to the United States. He always dreamed of a professional career. After he arrived, with assistance from a partial-scholarship, he began studying at Grambling State University in Louisiana, majoring in Computer Science. Later, he moved to New York, arriving in Utica in 2008. In 2009 he continued his studies at SUNY Institute of Technology and graduated in May, 2012. While pursuing his studies Thein supported himself by working at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees as on-call Medical Interpreter from 2009 to 2012. Thein interpreted for individuals speaking his native Arakanese and Burmese languages. He also worked for the local paper, the Observer-Dispatch as a paper boy for a few months.

Thein is a believer in building community with many cultures and has been an active member of the Multi-Ethnic community from Burma since arriving in Utica, NY. He has assisted with many community activities, including the annual Myanmar Water Festival marking the New Year and is an important volunteer assisting community members with interpretation, translation, and transportation. He played a critical role volunteering as one of the steering committee members for the Multi-Ethnic Association of Burma (M.E.A.B) from 2010-2011. He is committed to the social welfare, not just of his ethnic community, but the larger Mohawk Valley Region.

His current position at Special Metals is a realization of his dream to work as a professional in the United States while also helping those from his community who need extra assistance. Thein believes that success is a continuous effort, “To make dreams become reality you must learn new behaviors and adapt to the environment to realize what can happen, and learn from the experience.”

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Thankful for a Sense of Welcome

A former Refugee ‘Pays It Forward’

Mukti Rijal

Former Nepali speaking Refugee from Bhutan

Arrived in the U.S. in 2009

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Mukti Rijal is currently the Nepali Academic Coach for the Utica City School District, providing assistance to new refugee students with enrollment, bridging education gaps between the school and non-English speaking parents/guardians, providing interpretation, and translating documents and letters from English to Nepali. He is a Nepali speaking refugee who was born in a small village in Bhutan, but who spent the formative years of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal. He was resettled to the United States with his family in November of 2009.

Mukti lived in the refugee camp in Nepal for 17 years, where he attended and completed High School. He was able to attend a Humanities College outside of the refugee camp where he majored in Math and Education, completing an associate’s degree. He began studying for his Bachelor’s degree but was unable to complete his studies due to the situation within Nepal and family matters in the camp. He was hired as a teacher at the Kamala Academy School in Sindhuli, Nepal where he worked for 1 ½ years before applying for resettlement to the USA in 2008.

Arriving in Utica felt strange for Mukti and his family, with the cold weather, brick buildings, roads, everyone speaking English, and a home that had appliances they had never seen. It did not feel like the dream City they had seen in television and movies. Mukti knew he would have to overcome many challenges to feel a sense of belonging in this new place, just like his family had to when they moved to the refugee camp in Nepal. He was grateful for the sense of welcome from community members as they helped him and explained new things.

Mukti attendeed English classes at the Adult Learning Center, and then attended ESL at MVCC before enrolling in a program to become a Nurses Aid. He completed the program in 2010 and was hired by the Presbyterian Home. Finding a job restored a sense of dignity to him and his family, and made him feel he had something in his life; that he was similar to other Americans because he now had things he had seen in other homes.

Mukti has never forgotten the feeling of being lost in a new place, where he did not know anyone. Everything he experienced pushed him to help other new refugees and share their suffering. To promote a sense of identity, after 2011, he began helping people by preserving the Hindu religion and cultural norms through organizing community gatherings, festivals and celebrations. Outside of his current job he continues to help non-English speaking refugees from Nepal by translating or interpreting for banking, official paper work from DSS, and other important letters.

Mukti admits that sometimes people give him a hard time and stress him out but he says, “I remember the day when I first came here and my suffocation. Knowing that feeling never lets me stay away without helping people.” He wants to thank everybody who knowingly and unknowingly helped him to get to where he currently is, having a good job and finally a sense of home; “Thank you America, Utica, and kind citizens of the United States of America.”

Mukti Rijal was featured in the short film, Refugees Starting Over in Utica, NY.

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