- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

WINONA, Minn. (AP) - People around the world come to live in the U.S. for various different reasons. Po Too’s journey is a remarkable one of perseverance, hope and faith in what will come from the future.

Too’s origins in a war-torn nation have strengthened her resolve and personal character, the Winona Daily News (https://bit.ly/2rMNfj7 ) reported. Emerging as a warm-hearted and genuine person, she looks to support those around her.

“I think connection is very important,” Too said. She advises other people, no matter what their struggles are, to “never give up. I know life is not going to be easy but if you want to catch your dream, keep working.”

Her home country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been engulfed in civil war since the country’s independence from British rule in 1948. The conflict continues today through armed insurgencies and ethnic rivalries, plaguing the country with instability and military confrontation between the various factions.

One of those ethnicities are the Karen, a minority which includes Too and her family. Po’s village was located in the Tanintharyi region of southeast Myanmar, and life there was made difficult by a government that didn’t have their best interests in mind. In 1997, General of the Burmese Army Maung Aye stepped on the Karen flag and proclaimed, “In 20 years, you will only be able to find Karen people in a museum.”

His soldiers had occupied Too’s village before, but they would eventually leave, allowing Po’s family to return after the Burmese Army was ordered to withdraw. However, the last time they came, the Burmese Army left nothing for the people to return to. Po’s village was burned down in 1997 when she was 5 years old, forcing the entire population to flee into the jungle in hope of crossing the border into Thailand. Everyone in the jungle had to contend with malaria, starvation, landmines placed by the Burmese Army, and venomous snakes lurking in the grass.

“Life is always going to challenge you,” Too said.

After making their way through the harsh environment of the Southeast Asian jungle, the family reached their destination. The Tham Hin refugee camp, an outpost near the Thailand/Myanmar border, was cobbled together by various nongovernmental organizations.

The “closed” status of the camp meant that refugees could not leave once admitted, severely limiting any opportunities and confining thousands of people to a space less than a square kilometer. Po lived in the camp for the next 9 and a half years.

“When one person was sick, everyone else would get sick,” Too said. She was thankful for what was provided through international efforts but says she and her family were very lucky to get out of there.

She arrived in Lake Geneva, Wis., in September 2006, just in time for enrollment at Lake Geneva Badger High School. Too’s displaced family included her, a brother, and two sisters, with Po being the oldest. They had escaped the immediate danger of an oppressive government, the parlous elements of the jungle, and the stagnancy of the refugee camp. Now, in a country known for its values of freedom, Po had the challenge of integrating into a society with a new language and completely foreign culture.

Lisa Carey, an elementary school teacher who worked with Po, became her godmother after growing closer to her family.

“Po Too really, genuinely cares about people, all kinds of people, and wants to help them. She has had a lot of experiences and trials in her life that can help her relate to other people,” Carey said.

She was persistent in her lessons, catching up in her areas her peers had been well versed in their whole lives. Assisted by Emmanuel Lutheran Church, who sponsored their family to help leave the camp, the family adjusted to the Midwestern way of life. New ways of finding jobs, transportation, and being prepared for the cold were obstacles that would be daunting in a foreign nation under the best conditions.

Po put her best foot forward, finding all kinds of ways to get involved in her new community. She has volunteered at the YMCA at the teen center, and was featured in YWCA’s Tribute to Outstanding Women in 2016. Her other services include the public library, and being part of River Watch in La Crosse.

Too is on her way toward success after learning English and progressing through the public school system. She blazed a trail as the first in her family to attend college, obtaining an associate’s degree in human services from Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wis. Too attends Winona State in pursuit of a degree in social work. Her goal is to assist others with the same struggles she overcame, and to come full circle by helping refugees overcome their challenges.

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Information from: Winona Daily News, https://www.winonadailynews.com

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