Story and photos by EMILY RODRIGUEZ-VARGAS
A 3-year-old boy sits barefoot on the pavement at 2248 S. 440 East in South Salt Lake City, with a weary look on his face. Watching other children laugh and play at the Hser Ner Moo community center for refugees, he remains on the sidewalk alone.
Unfortunately, not all Asian individuals have been lucky enough to have had the kind of upbringing and opportunities to succeed. Some of them have never had the chance to learn and grow.
More than 2,000 immigrants arrive in Salt Lake City each year, according to reports by the International Rescue Committee. The majority of these immigrants come from Burma and other Asian countries. Many of them were allowed asylum into the U.S. due to political persecution. Many children have never lived outside of refugee camps, or have been exposed to the freedoms they find in Utah.
Roger Tsai, an immigration attorney at Parsons, Behle & Latimer and former president of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, said that although many refugees from Japan, Korea and China generally tend to have more education under their belt, many other people in Asian countries still struggle to access basic schooling.
In the Hser Ner Moo Community Center for refugees, students of all ages are learning English in school while acclimating to American culture. In the afterschool program, they come together to do homework, play games, and use the English vocabulary they picked up in school. With the help of volunteers, the center coordinates activities, outings and trainings for the children to enjoy.
Lewe La Sa, 17, who is Burmese, arrived in the U.S. only 18 months ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. She came to the center to get help with her homework, as she was trying to get through a full class load during her last year at Cottonwood High School. Sa showed motivation to learn for her classes and improve her English skills as she transitions from the life she knew growing up in the camp, where she was an excellent student. She speaks Karen, some Thai and now English. She said her mother never had the opportunity to go to school.
Sa dreams of attending the University of Utah and becoming a nurse. If that doesn’t work out, she said, she wants to be a social worker and help refugees from her country.
“Many people come here that speak Karen, but it’s very difficult for them to understand English at first,” she said. “I also want to be an interpreter, they really need one.”
Sa and her younger sister, Paw Ku Sher, currently teach a refresher course of Karen to refugee children between the ages of 4 and 14 every Saturday.
“If they have lived here for a long time, they don’t remember their family’s native language very well,” she said. Her next step toward achieving her academic goals is succeeding at the upcoming college entrance exams.
Kaity Dixon, an IRC volunteer coordinator, said in an orientation to volunteers in Salt Lake City that it’s a true struggle to learn to read and write in a foreign language when you haven’t learned to do so in your own native tongue.
“In an instant, reading directions and completing necessary paperwork for daily life becomes a barrier to progress in a new country,” she said.
Without organizations like the IRC and other offices, as well as on-site tutoring for refugee children and services for whole families, personal, financial or educational achievements for these individuals might be too far out of reach.
A Japanese saying captured this complex situation of giving direction right at its point: “When one has no needle, thread is of little use.” The programs offered now could expand or improve in the near future by greater participation and community involvement for maintaining these vital services.
Maybe there is hope for the young boy on the sidewalk after all.