Residents share stories of their immigration, perform music at recent celebration
— The three men stood together in the classroom in Springfield, decades away from the day in 1997 when they fled from the Burmese Army, one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. But on this recent spring day, they were all safe, gainfully employed, and resettled in Akron with their families. All three men started in the same village, and they all ended up here in Akron.
S.C.O.P.E. Academy, an integrated school that teaches kindergarten through fourth grade and practices project-based learning, considers the Karen people a vital part of the fabric of this community. The charter school recently hosted a celebration, including music performed by the Karen students and their family members and a Building Leadership Team Meeting, during which some of the family members of students shared stories about their journey from Burma (Myanmar) to a refugee camp in Thailand, and finally, to their resettlement here in Akron.
Principal Teresa Graves spoke to the S.C.O.P.E. Academy students before the music started, honoring the school’s high percentage of Burmese classmates. She introduced Konoriza Kyig, the first Burmese student to attend here. “She was a child that was rescued from another land where people prayed and hoped for a better life,” Graves told the students.
The family members in attendance at the Building Leadership Team meeting spoke to a smaller group after the concert. Many had to live years separated from family members, who have since been reunited here in Akron.
For example, Teddy Nay was separated from his wife and daughter for seven years. He arrived in the United States in 2007, and tried for several years to get his wife access to the United States, but because the two of them have different last names, he was met with a tangled mess of red tape. After years of frustration (sometimes spending an entire day on the phone just to have one question answered) Teddy was able to bring his family to Akron earlier his year.
Henry Gray lived in a village in Burma for 10 years and then spent another 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. He and his wife, Eh Dah, met in a refugee camp. She moved here first, saving up enough money to send money to Gray so he could buy a phone. The reception was so bad at the Thai refugee camp that he had to walk up a nearby mountain in order to speak with her on the phone. Teddy Nay (who was friends with Gray in their refugee camp and spoke before Gray at the school event), would take these long walks with him.
Gray was resourceful. After buying a house in Akron that needed considerable maintenance, he repaired and upgraded the house by watching YouTube videos and making frequent trips to Home Depot.
Euler Tha Victor, who started his resettlement in New York, also spoke at the event. The three men came from the same village and are still friends today.
Nay also recounted being stuck at the Thailand border, awaiting permission to enter the camp. It took the refugees a day just to walk to get water, which strained the health of the most vulnerable among the group. “A lot of people died over there,” he said.
“Grandma” Penny Arnold was instrumental in helping these Burmese-born residents find a welcoming place in this school and extended community. She saw Nay in a parking lot a number of years ago. Wanting to learn more about the Karen people, she followed him in her car and yelled to him out the window.
She’s since built a rapport with this community, paving the way for a number of their families to attend S.C.O.P.E. Academy. “To this day, whatever I try to say in Karen, the children just laugh,” said Arnold, a sponsor of the recent event.
At the Building Leadership Team Meeting, she offered a history lesson about some the families from Burma, who are descendants of Mongolians and who worked in rural farmlands, eventually succumbing to ethnic cleansing and forced into refugee camps.
“Most of the people in this room are citizens today,” she said.
Global Ties Akron, which connects local and international communities through education, cultural ambassadorship and programs such as this one, was also in attendance.
S.C.O.P.E. Academy launched in 2008 and is an integrated program that uses a project-based interdisciplinary approach and includes preschool through 4th grade. The school started with only four students and now includes a full roster, with 14 hailing from Burma. For information, visit scopeacademy.org.