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Burmese Refugee Mothers Building a New Life for Their Children

posted on Sunday, May 8, 2016 in  College News

By: Meta Hemenway-Forbes, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

WATERLOO — The children of Yin Yin Tun and Laldin Liana may never know the hardships their mothers have endured to provide them with safety, comfort, health and a good education.

Liana has two children, ages 5 and 6, and said the memories are too painful to share with them.

“If I share, they are heartbroken,” she said.

Tun may share the story of her long, arduous journey with her children — now 13, 11 and 9 — when they are older.

“For now I tell them to try so hard,” Tun said. “In Burma and Thailand they don’t have opportunity like here. We feel very safe here and have opportunity to learn.”

Tun, 34, and Liani, 29, are refugees from Burma who became fast friends in the English Language Learner program at Hawkeye Community College Metro Center. They’ve been attending English classes there for four years and are now in the advanced ELL class.

“That’s the highest level we offer here,” said Sandy Jensen, director of the Metro Center. “They are speaking English very well.”

So well, in fact, they’ve become student ambassadors, helping Burmese refugees who are new to the program. It’s a role desperately needed.

“We have students from 38 countries, and 40 percent of those are Burmese,” Jensen said. “They’re our largest demographic.”

Tun and Liana also participate in the optional Family Literacy Program, which provides bilingual children’s books, written in English and the family’s native language.

“We stress the importance of reading to their children every day,” Jensen said. “The goal is to strengthen them in their role as the child’s first teacher and to prepare them to be successful in school. And it’s very important to maintain their first language.”

Tun was 18 when she fled Burma. Civil war raged.

“Burmese soldiers burned our village. I followed my uncle to the refugee camp in Thailand,” she said.

She lived at the camp for 11 years, and in 2010 emigrated to Milwaukee with her husband and three small children. There, they were assigned a caseworker who tried to help them navigate their new lives. But the caseworker didn’t speak their language, so they struggled to figure out many things on their own.

“Electricity, stove, we have never seen before,” Tun said.

In the dead of a January winter, temperatures dipped to freezing inside the family’s home because they didn’t know what a thermostat was or how to use it.

“I cry every night then, but my husband say ‘we can do it,’” she said.

She enrolled in an English class, and did fine until the day she no longer had a ride to class.

“My caseworker said tomorrow I have to go to school by myself,” she said. “I don’t know how to take bus. When in our country, there is no bus, car, big building — only walking.”

On her first bus ride alone, Tun rode past her transfer station, not knowing where to disembark. A discarded ticket and an expired transfer later, she arrived at her destination. Class was almost over.

“I was very late,” she said.

Getting home proved worse. She got off the bus at the wrong stop and walked for an hour and a half in Milwaukee’s frigid winter temperatures.

“I know my house is red, but I couldn’t find my house,” she said. “When I got home, I couldn’t speak. My mouth was frozen. It was a lot of snow, and very hard. But I say I will not cry, because I am trying.”

The family moved in 2012 to Waterloo where Tun’s husband took a job at Tyson Fresh Meats.

Liana’s husband also works at Tyson. She was 20 years old when her husband was forced to flee from Burma to Malaysia. “The government question me, ‘Where is he?,’” she said. Two years later, she, too, fled to Malaysia. Further oppressive conditions greeted her there. Two to three families occupied tiny rented rooms. Work was scarce. Worse, freedom was threatened.

“In Malaysia they arrest refugees. They put all people in jail. Women, kids, pregnant women,” she said.

The family applied for refugee status and landed in Washington state, where, once again, work was hard to find.

“There were no jobs for if you didn’t speak English,” Liana said. A cousin who had settled in Waterloo drew them here in 2010.

Today, Liana and Tun are community navigators for Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center, where they help other refugees learn their way in a new life — how to use the post office, how to go to the doctor and, yes, how to use the public bus system.

In Thailand, Tun was a nurse and plans to earn her nurse certification here. Liana has the same ambition. The pair will enroll in a pilot certified nurse aide program in the fall, which will include a nursing instructor and an ELL teacher. They share the same goal to become registered nurses.

“My kids look at pictures from Burma and say, ‘Mom, it’s very different,” Tun said. “In Burma we don’t have enough food to eat or opportunity like here. I know my kids will have a full life here.”

WATERLOO — The children of Yin Yin Tun and Laldin Liana may never know the hardships their mothers have endured to provide them with safety, comfort, health and a good education.

Liana has two children, ages 5 and 6, and said the memories are too painful to share with them.

“If I share, they are heartbroken,” she said.

Tun may share the story of her long, arduous journey with her children — now 13, 11 and 9 — when they are older.

“For now I tell them to try so hard,” Tun said. “In Burma and Thailand they don’t have opportunity like here. We feel very safe here and have opportunity to learn.”

Tun, 34, and Liani, 29, are refugees from Burma who became fast friends in the English Language Learner program at Hawkeye Community College Metro Center. They’ve been attending English classes there for four years and are now in the advanced ELL class.

“That’s the highest level we offer here,” said Sandy Jensen, director of the Metro Center. “They are speaking English very well.”

So well, in fact, they’ve become student ambassadors, helping Burmese refugees who are new to the program. It’s a role desperately needed.

“We have students from 38 countries, and 40 percent of those are Burmese,” Jensen said. “They’re our largest demographic.”

Tun and Liana also participate in the optional Family Literacy Program, which provides bilingual children’s books, written in English and the family’s native language.

“We stress the importance of reading to their children every day,” Jensen said. “The goal is to strengthen them in their role as the child’s first teacher and to prepare them to be successful in school. And it’s very important to maintain their first language.”

Tun was 18 when she fled Burma. Civil war raged.

“Burmese soldiers burned our village. I followed my uncle to the refugee camp in Thailand,” she said.

She lived at the camp for 11 years, and in 2010 emigrated to Milwaukee with her husband and three small children. There, they were assigned a caseworker who tried to help them navigate their new lives. But the caseworker didn’t speak their language, so they struggled to figure out many things on their own.

“Electricity, stove, we have never seen before,” Tun said.

In the dead of a January winter, temperatures dipped to freezing inside the family’s home because they didn’t know what a thermostat was or how to use it.

“I cry every night then, but my husband say ‘we can do it,’” she said.

She enrolled in an English class, and did fine until the day she no longer had a ride to class.

“My caseworker said tomorrow I have to go to school by myself,” she said. “I don’t know how to take bus. When in our country, there is no bus, car, big building — only walking.”

On her first bus ride alone, Tun rode past her transfer station, not knowing where to disembark. A discarded ticket and an expired transfer later, she arrived at her destination. Class was almost over.

“I was very late,” she said.

Getting home proved worse. She got off the bus at the wrong stop and walked for an hour and a half in Milwaukee’s frigid winter temperatures.

“I know my house is red, but I couldn’t find my house,” she said. “When I got home, I couldn’t speak. My mouth was frozen. It was a lot of snow, and very hard. But I say I will not cry, because I am trying.”

The family moved in 2012 to Waterloo where Tun’s husband took a job at Tyson Fresh Meats.

Liana’s husband also works at Tyson. She was 20 years old when her husband was forced to flee from Burma to Malaysia. “The government question me, ‘Where is he?,’” she said. Two years later, she, too, fled to Malaysia. Further oppressive conditions greeted her there. Two to three families occupied tiny rented rooms. Work was scarce. Worse, freedom was threatened.

“In Malaysia they arrest refugees. They put all people in jail. Women, kids, pregnant women,” she said.

The family applied for refugee status and landed in Washington state, where, once again, work was hard to find.

“There were no jobs for if you didn’t speak English,” Liana said. A cousin who had settled in Waterloo drew them here in 2010.

Today, Liana and Tun are community navigators for Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center, where they help other refugees learn their way in a new life — how to use the post office, how to go to the doctor and, yes, how to use the public bus system.

In Thailand, Tun was a nurse and plans to earn her nurse certification here. Liana has the same ambition. The pair will enroll in a pilot certified nurse aide program in the fall, which will include a nursing instructor and an ELL teacher. They share the same goal to become registered nurses.

“My kids look at pictures from Burma and say, ‘Mom, it’s very different,” Tun said. “In Burma we don’t have enough food to eat or opportunity like here. I know my kids will have a full life here.”

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