- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

LOGANSPORT, Ind. (AP) - After fleeing from their civil-war-ravaged country and refugee camps, Sunday Htoo and Hsa Mu Lei met one another while taking college classes as young adults in southern Thailand. Neither wanted to remain as refugees, both hoping to learn and to live someday in the United States.

And on Dec. 11, 2013, they did just that - flying from country to country, city to city, until the husband and wife ventured through a snowstorm on the roads from South Bend to their new lives in Logansport, where Htoo’s parents had been for several years.

Now after three years adjusting to life in the U.S., Htoo and Lei, as well as their 5-year-old daughter Shee Nay Hsa, are all in school. Htoo and Lei attend Ivy Tech Community College in Logansport. Htoo is studying professional communication, and Lei is pursuing elementary education - both building on the courses and experience they had in Thailand.

The couple is from the country of Myanmar, formerly called Burma, which has had an ongoing civil war for more than six decades between the country’s government and minority groups, including the Karen people.

Because of that, many Karen people have fled the country to refugee camps near the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Lei left his country at the age of 5 and went to a refugee camp in northern Thailand, where he grew up and went to school, for a total of 24 years.

Htoo lived in a refugee camp in southern Thailand over the course of 13 years. She remembers the long lines to get food in the morning, usually rice and yellow beans. She lived in an 18-square-foot tent-like structure with a roof made of black plastic. Lei’s home was a bamboo hut.

“I don’t like it,” Htoo said.

After she finished high school in 2003, Htoo wanted to leave the refugee camp, so she escaped from the area and started writing for a Karen news group shortly thereafter. Lei said the camps are strict, since people are not allowed to leave, or they could get arrested or deported if they are caught.

Lei also escaped from his camp so he could study courses at a college in southern Thailand. It was there, in 2005, when he met Htoo, who was taking journalism classes while working for the news group, which documented the lives of Karen people in refugee camps.

The couple later married and lived in Thailand for about six years as undocumented residents. But when their daughter was born in 2011, they had to return to their respective refugee camps to register her with the UN Refugee Agency, so they could at some point resettle in the U.S.

For two years, Htoo and Lei were apart from one another at the two camps. They traveled back and forth across the country of Thailand to see each other and to see Shee Nay Hsa, who was living with Lei.

Near the end of 2013, Htoo left her camp to go to Bangkok, where she met Lei and Shee Nay Hsa in December, preparing for resettlement to the U.S. And not too long after coming to Logansport, Htoo enrolled in the Adult Learning Center to work toward her High School Equivalency, which she passed in June 2016 after two and a half years of work. Lei completed his GED in Thailand.

Education is important for them, Htoo said, since many people who live in the refugee camps don’t have as many opportunities to study after high school.

“They do not have a second chance like this,” she said.

Shee Nay Hsa is one of the 52 kindergartners in Logansport’s dual immersion class, where students learn both English and Spanish. As a preschooler, Shee Nay Hsa tested at a first-grade level, so she was placed in the faster-paced class, Htoo said, where she can learn to understand a third language.

Htoo wants to be a writer or a reporter like she was in Thailand. She hopes to write nonfiction books about the Karen people and an autobiography, written in both English and Karen, so children from Karen families can learn more about their language.

Lei hopes to work as an elementary teacher in Logansport schools, especially working with Karen children who are “in between,” meaning they aren’t fluent in English or Karen. He used to teach students at his refuge camps, so he wanted to learn more about the U.S. education system.

“We can help other people around here,” he said.

When they’re not taking college classes, Htoo and Lei are working as instructional assistants for English language learner classes at the Adult Learning Center. Lei said before they came to the U.S., they were afraid to talk to their neighbors, in fear of having to go back to the camps or getting deported to Myanmar. Now, they’re eager to share their story of hope.

“We feel that we are free,” Lei said. “We are not afraid anymore.”

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Source: (Logansport) Pharos-Tribune, https://bit.ly/2hKOf2n

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Information from: Pharos-Tribune, https://www.pharostribune.com

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