(Interview by Maria Mancinelli)
April Paw was recently named the recipient of the Dora V. Gordon Scholarship Fund, a scholarship awarded to an immigrant or refugee currently pursuing, completing or enhancing his or her education. April just completed her sophomore year at the University of Akron, and she was recently accepted into the University’s School of Nursing.
While April is excelling in school, things were not always easy for her, as much of her early life was surrounded by tragic circumstances. April and her family moved to a refugee camp in Thailand when she was four years old, and their home was a tent. Yet despite living in dire circumstances, April says that originally she was the only one in her family who wanted to come to the United States.
“That was my dream,” she says. “I tried to beg my parents to come with me, but because of the language barrier and because of the new culture, I think they were afraid of that.”
However, her parents changed their minds and decided to come to the United States with April. “I think finally my prayer got answered, so that is when my parents’ heart changed and they told me, ‘Yes we’ll come to the U.S.,'” she says.
April recalls the night before leaving the refugee camp vividly: ”I was so ready, dancing around! I got to go to my dreams! I was so happy I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited in the morning to go to the station.”
According to April, she and her family were forced to wait for three days before leaving for Bangkok because of a diarrhea epidemic that was plaguing the region. This meant that everyone leaving had to be checked thoroughly.
Upon arriving at the station, April found herself in tears. “It was so emotional. I didn’t want to leave my friends and my dad’s side relatives because I was going to miss them, but I really wanted to come to the United States.”
April says that she and her family did not bring many items along with them, mostly just clothes. They did not have a lot to begin with. Once in Bangkok, they boarded the airplane, where April had her first experience with the language barrier.
“On the plane we didn’t really know English, so whenever the flight attendants came and asked us ‘What would you like to drink?’ I said ‘water’ because I didn’t know how to call anything [else] like orange soda or anything. Every time I just said ‘water’ and ‘water’ and ‘water,’” says April.
Life after the ‘honeymoon’
When the Paw family finally arrived in Ohio, they went to the International Institute of Akron. She admits that she missed her family back home but describes her arrival in Ohio as being similar to a “honeymoon.”
“When I entered our first house in the U.S. that they prepared for us, it was so amazing. We had a computer and home phone, and a rice cooker we didn’t even know how to use. A microwave I didn’t know how to use. And then a bedroom, we had drawers, a closet… it was so different! I was so happy when I first got here.”
After the honeymoon period, April went through the same stage of confusion and frustration that many immigrants and refugees face when adapting to the culture of a new country. In April’s case, she had to not only adjust to a new culture, but do so without any compatriots of her own age to facilitate the process.
Because there were no interpreters available in school, April felt overwhelmed by the language barrier she had to face. “I didn’t feel like going to school at all. I came home and I just cried and I said, ‘Mom I don’t understand anything!’” Yet, even through her frustration, April persevered. It was her desire to get an education that allowed her to learn the English language and eventually adapt to American culture.
A childhood dream of helping people
Part of her desire to get an education stems from her dream to become a nurse; a dream she has had since childhood, inspired by her mother’s work as a visiting nurse in the refugee camps. April still occasionally struggles due to the language barrier, but thinking of her relatives and friends who are still overseas inspires her to continue her studies.
“Becoming a nurse in the U.S. is really hard because of the language barrier. I have to learn English and study for my midterm at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I want to give up, but whenever I think of life in the refugee camp and other people struggling, I feel like that is my motivation, you know? I still want to keep going and that is my dream to become a nurse.”
In 2013, April visited some of these relatives in Thailand, going back to the refugee camp where she lived for 13 years. Although she was happy to see her family, the experience made her realize she could never live there again.
“I used to drink that water, take a shower with that water for 13 years, and after I came to the U.S. for six years, when I went back everything changed,” she says. “I don’t think I could live there at all for another 13 years.”
Although April thinks a lot about her family overseas, they are not the only ones who give her inspiration. April is also motivated by her family here and hopes that her academic achievements will inspire her younger siblings to reach even higher heights.
“If I get my bachelor’s, I want them to get a master’s. If I get a master’s, I want them to become a Ph. D or doctor or something! My whole dream for them is to have a better life and to help those who need their help back in the refugee camp,” she says.
It’s not just her family that April is concerned about. In fact, she has some advice for her refugee peers: “My advice is to study hard and to get as high an education as you can, because we get a privilege here in the United States to fulfill their dream. Not only just sleeping in their bed and saying, ‘I want to become a doctor or I want to become a photographer, I want to become a lawyer, a pilot,’ but to actually fulfill their dreams. I understand that it is really hard to go to college because financially and the language barrier, I know that. But when we want something we have to fight for that.”