- Associated Press - Sunday, November 30, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Inside the tiny Benson apartment, in a kitchen filled with boxes of donations, stood two teenagers washing dishes.

Side by side, the pair of immigrants - a girl from Mexico, a boy from Thailand - worked through the piles of plates, mugs, glasses and silverware. They washed, they dried and they put them into once-empty cabinets while their friends in a unique high school club ran the vacuum, filled the fridge with fresh cabbage and made signs that said “Welcome.”

The Omaha Northwest Thrive Club was preparing Apartment 11 for a refugee family due in that night, the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/1uIHrfj ) reported.

The setup work was just part of a larger commitment the students, nearly all of them foreign-born, are making to the newcomers. And it is a measure of how far the students have come since their own arrivals to America.

The Northwest students know all too well the challenges ahead: adjusting to a sometimes-frigid climate, a new language and even creature comforts like a bed.

“I wasn’t used to a mattress at all,” recalled 19-year-old Hei Blut Htoo, an Omaha Northwest senior, about his first night in America seven years ago. “I slept on the floor. The carpet was warm and soft.”

Hei Blut Htoo is president of his school’s Thrive Club, an after-school group at five Omaha public high schools. The club is aimed at migrant students who are either new to Omaha or who work or have parents working in an agricultural field such as meatpacking. Generally such students are from other countries, many of them refugees who had come from meager conditions without a lot of modern conveniences or consistent schooling.

Once they get to America, the learning curve is steep. Many refugee students, insecure about their broken English, tend to clam up in the classroom and not get involved in activities where they could make friends and build stronger school connections.

That’s where Thrive comes in. The club meets weekly and uses a leadership curriculum that teaches students about character traits and service and encourages them to branch out beyond their ethnic groups. The four-year-old club also encourages students to do more than merely survive - they are pushed to thrive. A number of former club members are now in college.

Club participation requires a service project, and past projects have involved generic acts of kindness, like picking up litter. This year, the Northwest Thrive Club wanted to do something more personal.

So the club teamed up with Lutheran Family Services, a refugee resettlement agency, and spent a few days helping transform bleak, empty Apartment 11 into a warm, welcoming home - with help from an Omaha firefighter who had collected furniture, hauled it in and set it up.

Some students went grocery shopping, choosing the fresh, familiar fruits and vegetables that the incoming family from a Thai refugee camp would appreciate. Some went to Family Dollar to buy new towels and a shower curtain.

Others, like Hei Blut Htoo and Fernanda Compean, unpacked boxes. Each had a unique immigrant story.

Hei Blut Htoo’s parents, members of a persecuted ethnic minority in Burma called the Karen, had fled to Thailand. Hei Blut Htoo was born in a Thai refugee camp. He lived in a bamboo hut with no electricity, though he could go to a common area to watch American movies. Schooling was spotty. Fire was a constant risk: The refugee camp where he was born burned down, and his family had to go to a different camp.

When his family landed in Houston, a sponsor drove them to an apartment. What Hei Blut Htoo remembers is how hungry he was. After two days of travel, he hadn’t had any rice and he really, really, really wanted rice. Instead, waiting for him in America was a strange meal: a box of Walmart chicken.

It took a week for a caseworker to show up. No one got the boy, then 11, enrolled in school for several months. It was hard for his father to find work at first. They moved several times: to a remote Texas town called Cactus, to Amarillo and finally to Omaha last year. His father, a meatpacker, recently had a stroke.

Fernanda Compean, 16, came to America from Tamaulipas, Mexico, four years ago. She flew with her mother and sister to Denver, then drove to Gillette, Wyoming, where her father already was working. Fernanda said it seemed like there weren’t many Mexicans in Gillette, where the last Census has shown a Hispanic population of just under 10 percent. She said she knew only one student at her school who spoke Spanish. Anti-immigrant sentiment has stunned her.

“It’s hard,” she said, “because sometimes they don’t like us.”

She felt very alone, even more so 1 1/2 years ago, when her mother died of cancer.

Fernanda moved to Omaha with her older sister; their father now works in Kansas and sees them when he can.

Thrive has been an important outlet for Fernanda, a junior at Northwest, and for Hei Blut Htoo. Both have set high goals for themselves that involve college. Fernanda wants to be an elementary school teacher. Hei Blut Htoo sees social work in his future - and his present. He already tutors migrant and English as a Second Language students. He encourages them to practice English, to not be ashamed of speaking broken English and to try hard.

“I tell them I was once in their place,” he said.

And because he was, because the other Thrive Club members had shared that stranger-in-a-strange-land experience, they have committed to doing more than unpack the boxes and hang the towels. They plan on coming regularly to tutor the new refugees, to practice English with them and to ease their transition to a new home.

Some Thrive Club members started that deeper commitment that very night, at Eppley Airfield. They met the arriving family, a father and mother and three children ages 7, 4 and 1. They waved signs and took pictures, and then Hei Blut Htoo and a few other Karen-speaking Thrivers followed the family back to Apartment 11.

The students had spent the afternoon there. Now it was after 9 p.m. The apartment began to fill with a Lutheran Family Services caseworker (who brought a rice cooker and rice) and Karen-speaking translator and members of the Karen community in Omaha. They lugged in steaming pans of food. They made themselves at home.

The new family entered tired, but happy. The mother plopped right onto the floor and put the baby to her breast to nurse while his big brothers eagerly grabbed fruit out of the basket and began to eat. The father, still wearing a winter coat he was given at the airport, followed the Karen translator and Hei Blut Htoo around the small apartment for a crash course.

This is a stove and how to use it. This is a fridge. Be careful what you put down the kitchen sink. Hei Blut Htoo handed him a sink strainer and explained that. This is a thermostat. This is a toilet. This is the key.

Hei Blut Htoo and his fellow Thrivers then left. They knew the family had endured a long enough journey and that another journey - of settling, of learning, of assimilating - awaited. And these former newcomers who are now seasoned Omahans would help.

“I want them to feel welcome,” Hei Blut Htoo said, “that they’re not alone, that they will be fine, that they have people who care about them.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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