THERE ARE 730 almost-Americans waiting quietly in the grand auditorium. Many are dressed in their best — suits, brightly-colored dresses, exquisite turquoise saris, and vibrant orange head wraps. They are citizens of Ethiopia, Haiti, Guatemala, Ireland, Syria, Brazil, Bhutan, Uzbekistan, and 75 other countries. And then there is Po. Po is a citizen of nowhere.
I met Po when she was a student in one of my US history classes, one of more than 140 recent immigrants and refugees I taught in my first year at a large public high school north of Boston. They came from Cambodia and Colombia, Iraq and El Salvador, Uganda, Nepal, and Portugal — more than 25 countries in all. Many had escaped persecution. All were seeking a brighter future.
Po stood out. She was bubbly and enthusiastic, and she loved history. She eagerly debated topics like the women’s suffrage movement, and she lingered afterward to ask questions about World War I. She told me that she hoped to become a teacher.
As fall chilled into winter, I grew to know Po. At lunchtime, my classroom filled with students swapping stories and snacks. They shared homemade Iraqi baklava, Vietnamese soups, and Liberian stews. Po fed us spicy egg curries and fermented tea-leaf salad. During these meals, Po told me about her journey.
Like many of my students, Po was born into conflict.
Po’s family had been prosperous farmers in southern Myanmar. Her grandfather had cultivated an extensive farm through a lifetime of hard work, with buffalo, cows, chickens, and two friendly elephants. In their small town, families without enough to eat always came to him.
Their life changed when Burmese soldiers came in 1997.
While two-thirds of Myanmar’s population is ethnic Burmese, the country is also home to more than 130 ethnic groups. Po’s family is Karen, an ancient hill tribe people. For more than 60 years, the Myanmar government has been in armed conflict with many of the ethnic minorities, including the Karen. According to international reports, the military has regularly committed atrocities, including burning of villages, forced labor, and rape. Since the 1980s, refugees have been streaming across the border into Thailand.
When Po’s mother was eight months pregnant with her, Burmese soldiers invaded their home, demanding lodging and food. Po’s father and brothers were already in hiding, to avoid conscription. Refusing the soldiers would have meant certain death, but after three days of quartering them, Po’s mother fled with her two young daughters.
Po was born in jungles of Thailand. She was an infant caught in the in-between spaces of borders and conflicts. She was stateless, a citizen of nowhere, one of 10 million such people globally, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Her family moved to a Thai refugee camp, where they lived for 14 years. (Today, nine main Thai camps hold roughly 100,000 Myanmar refugees.) It was there that she acquired her name, when a UN aid worker christened her in the official record with the Karen words meaning “tiny one.”
The camp provided refuge, but no path to a normal life. Po’s family could not become Thai citizens, and they could not work or go to school outside the camp’s small circumference.
Po would occasionally sneak out to search for bamboo shoots or to swim in the nearby river. Rations dwindled: When she was five, there were eggs, beans, sometimes sugar; by the time she was 10, they ate mostly rice flavored with fish paste.
Only 1 percent of refugees world-wide are resettled, but Po’s family was lucky. After years in the camp, the family filed an application to come to United States, and following extensive interviews, security checks, and medical examinations, their request was granted.
Po landed in Boston in February 2012, as a wide-eyed 14-year-old. Having never seen snow, she raced her siblings to the schoolyard to jump and roll and attempt to build snowmen. Everything was new — the airplane, the multi-storied buildings, the Market Basket with aisles and aisles of food.
School was strange too — large, crowded, and loud. Po struggled to understand and to be understood. At first, she was not accepted. Students teased her, called her derogatory names, refused to talk with her.
But a kind Nepalese girl took her under her wing, and they quickly became friends. Among the immigrant students, a circle of friends expanded — Iraqis, Dominicans, Cambodians. They couldn’t speak each other’s native tongues, but they watched out for each other. Po began to make connections, not just with students, but also teachers, who were kind, funny, and accepting. Slowly, she grew into a leader.
For an action-civics project during her junior year, Po led my class’s efforts to propose new policies to support teen mothers in school. She conducted surveys, drafted recommendations, and collaborated on an op-ed in the local newspaper. She and four classmates traveled to the Massachusetts State House to present their work.
As a senior, Po took a seminar I teach on diversity in America. As a final project, Po and her fellow students coauthored a book about key Supreme Court cases, federal laws, and concepts through which this country broadened its notion of what it means to be an American. Their book is now in more than 150 school libraries across the country and has been incorporated into several school curriculums.
Now, Po will finally experience for herself what it means to be an American.
“In Thailand and Burma, I never had opportunities. I didn’t have rights. I was treated like I was nothing,” she told me recently. “In the United States, they treat us equally. Here, there are people of many colors, many backgrounds. They help people from around the world, they give us a chance, they open their heart to us.”
Now a freshman in college, Po is studying to become an elementary school teacher. She hopes especially to help immigrant students find their footing in a new land, just as her teachers helped her.
Po’s journey is one of many stories of resilience, determination, and optimism that I have learned from my students. They have overcome great odds to be here. Each morning, they arrive in class ready to learn and eager to give back to their new community.
Last week, on Valentine’s Day, Po swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. America became the first place she could truly call home.
In gaining citizenship, Po also decided to acquire a new name. She changed the second word of the name she received in the Thai refugee camp, creating a combination that in Karen means “forever.”
As she told me: “Nothing in my life has been forever. I have never had a place that accepts me. I changed my last name because I hope I won’t have to flee anymore. I want here to be forever.”
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.