Wednesday, April 2, 2014. It was over 18 months ago, but Khual and his sister Nem remember that day like it was yesterday.
They remember arriving at JFK Airport in New York with their mother and father. They remember being surrounded by a sea of white people. And they remember the black airport employee that said, “Welcome to America.”
That meant a lot to them, especially Khual.
“Our very first meal in America was pizza,” Khual said. “We ordered from Domino’s.”
In many ways, Khual, 16 and Nem, 13, are like typical American teenagers. Khaul plays soccer and dreams of owning a fast car. He likes anime, the popular Japanese animated productions.
Nem loves to drink Frappuccinos from Starbucks. She watches “The Voice” and “Frozen” is her favorite Disney movie. She plays badminton for her school and enjoys tennis.
They both reveal new braces when they laugh or smile. As brother and sister, they argue over which television show to watch. Yet they both agree that snow days are great because schools are either delayed or closed.
Even so, Khual and Nem are undeniably different than most American teenagers. Born in the Southeast Asian nation Myanmar (Burma), their lives have been filled with experiences that set them apart. Khaul and Nem didn’t just arrive in America, they fled here for their safety.
There are an estimated 14.4 million refugees worldwide according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Until April 2, 2014, Khaul and Nem were counted among that number. They are now among the 350 refugees that World Relief has helped to resettle in Baltimore, Maryland in the last 20 months.
“Only half of one percent of all refugees are resettled,” Nan Ross, volunteer coordinator for World Relief, said.
World Relief is one of nine resettlement agencies in the United States. In February of 2014, a new office was opened in Glen Burnie, Anne Arundel County. Ross was hired to both educate the community and mobilize volunteers in assisting refugees that resettle in nearby areas.
In addition to conducting presentations in schools, churches and at various conferences and events, she also helps refugees in personal ways. Ross, 53, exudes a childlike joy and is excited about engaging families and especially children.
Khual was diagnosed with Spina Bifida. While living as a refugee in Malaysia, he walked abnormally due to the imbalances in muscle strength. He was unable to attend school with friends. His greatest disappointment came when he was forced to quit the soccer team.
“When we came to America, Miss. Nan was the one who found the doctor and surgeon that helped my brother,” Nem said. “She made the appointments for him, took Khual to each one, and was there for his surgery.”
Although they appreciate their relationship with Ross, neither have developed friendships with fellow students in their schools. Khual is a sophomore at Catonsville High School and Nem is in eighth grade at Arbutus Middle School.
“At school, most people are friendly but I don’t fit into their culture,” Khual said. “And I don’t have the guts to talk to people I don’t know.”
Nem has faced discrimination when other students learn that she is a refugee.
“Sometimes in school, people look down on us and call us stupid,” Nem said. “I want them to understand the problems we face and to not look down on other people. We’re on the same level.”
Khual and Nem are both successful students, acquiring almost straight A’s on their first quarter report cards. Both are disciplined and motivated. And both view their education as a gift, as a privilege.
“I appreciate that I can go to school for free and that there are lots of opportunities,” Nem said.
Khual doesn’t love school the same way his younger sister does, but he agrees with her perspective. He is aware of the great sacrifices that his parents have made to give them this opportunity. He won’t waste that.
“We came to America for you two, so that you can get a good education,” their Dad often reminds them. And it’s true. Education is one of the reasons that their father made the difficult decision to help his wife and children flee Myanmar.
In Myanmar, they lived in Chin State, which is considered one of the poorest regions according to UN agencies. They barely earned enough wages as corn and rice farmers to feed their family. But that was only part of the problem.
“There is heavy military oppression in Chin State,” Ross said. “Since it is so mountainous, they cannot use trucks to move their ammunition, so they recruit young men to carry it.”
Khual and Nem’s father fled to Malaysia before them in hopes of registering his family for refugee status with the UNHCR. He then sold his home and land in order to pay smugglers to help his family escape to Malaysia through Thailand.
“It was scary, because if we were caught, we could have been imprisoned,” Khual said.
Once they arrived safely in Malaysia, they were part of the refugee community, living in a tiny run-down apartment. Khual and Nem attended a school that was held in a small office, where they learned some English.
After two years of waiting and fearing imprisonment, they were informed that they were granted access into America. America, the land of dreams.
“In Burma, you are never asked what you want to be or what dreams you have,” Khual said. “It is assumed you will try to be a doctor or engineer so that you can make a lot of money.”
Nem does have dreams. Big ones. She wants to work for the FBI or be an attorney.
The refugee crisis is making headlines daily. People are fearful. Politicians are weighing in on how to resolve the conflict.
Khual and Nem remind us that refugees have their own set of fears. For them, coming to America offers something they have never experienced before.
“I feel like in America we have full rights,” Khual said. ‘I feel safe.”