PHOTO: Football and rugby player Hem Let Knyaw is already receiving post-secondary credits through a BCIT-sponsored pipefitter-plumbing program offered through Langley Secondary. (Mark van Manen/PNG)
by Howard Tsumara/Special to the Langley Advance
Head of the Class Spirit Week is a celebration of the powerful ways in which all of those who work, study and compete in athletics in B.C.’s education system help to create a caring community of purposeful individuals. All week long, we’ve brought you their stories. Today, in advance of Monday’s 17th annual Head of the Class special section, we share the story of how one school opened its arms to embrace and inspire a group of refugee students from the other side of the world. Along the way, the youth of the Karen nation have woven their hopeful spirit into the very fabric of Langley Secondary School.
“I grew up in a refugee camp, shut down from the rest of the world,” says a girl named True Pay Na Moo.
“I never got to carry a map. I always thought that the world was flat.”
Last week, in a scene that trumped anything she could have imagined as a young girl growing up as a political refugee in the steaming jungles of Thailand, she donned cap and gown with a number of Langley Secondary’s graduating class of 2016 and walked through the hallways of her former Douglas Park Elementary, high-fiving children who now look up to her as a role model.
And when she made her way out the door as a high school graduate, she was stepping into a world whose dimensions and possibilities she now fully understands.
This is a story of survival, of families forced to flee their homeland in a bid to escape the ethnic persecution of military dictatorship. But this is also a story of welcome and warm embrace, of community and compassion, and of the miles that can be travelled when a life at risk is blessed with opportunity.
The road to Langley
In the 2015-16 school year, True Pay Na and 37 other students whose roots can be traced to the Southeast Asia nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma), attended Langley Secondary School.
All belong to a persecuted ethnic minority known as the Karen, and all were born to parents who had fled to refugee camps in Thailand, just across Myanmar’s eastern border. Between 2005 and 2009, the Canadian government resettled nearly 800 Karen refugees in this country, with 257 landing in the City of Langley.
Barriers were everywhere, from culture shock and language to a litany of social and emotional hurdles.
Langley Secondary principal Dawne Tomlinson is brought to tears when she talks about all of the Karen students who have been enrolled at the school and what they have overcome.
“We have a very diverse community in this school and I think that is what makes it so very special,” said Tomlinson. “Kids come from all different kinds of backgrounds, but they mix. They respect each other and I think that has happened here because of the actual diversity. So in the end, making it more diverse has actually made it more inclusive.”
A springboard in sports While the Karen students have worked hard to gain proficiency in English, they have been able to find much quicker success in sports.
“A lot of the refugees and immigrants can really feel marginalized at school, perhaps because of low language skills or other issues,” said Lisa Sadler, a Langley school district settlement worker, whose tireless efforts have helped the Karen kids and their families transition to life in a new country.
“So sports has a really important role to play because it draws them into the school. They can be struggling academically or struggling at home, but sports helps them make friends and gives them something they can be proud of.”
That sense of pride is very evident in one of the tiniest members of the LSS student body, 4-foot-10 Sayk’pru Say, an 11th grader known around the school as Say Say.
“It’s because of sports that I feel valuable,” she said. “It makes me feel like I am a part of something, and that just because I’m from a different country it doesn’t mean that I can’t do what the others are doing.”
As a three-sport varsity athlete at her school, Say Say, who had never touched a ball before her arrival in Langley as a Grade 4 student, plays volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter and soccer in the spring.
She proved to be so proficient on the soccer pitch that, despite her size, she also plays on a metro women’s soccer team in Aldergrove, where one of her teammates is her high school soccer coach Lisa Ellis.
“She is an example of courage because her size doesn’t limit her,” said Ellis, who also coached Say Say for two years on the LSS junior varsity volleyball team.
“The metro women’s game can be so much more physical, but she works through it and she is tenacious.”
Tiny in stature but huge in heart, Say Say earlier this week was named the school’s athlete of the year.
In total, 18 of Langley Secondary’s 38 Karen students played on at least one Saints team this season. Say Say was one of only three of the school’s 20 Karen girls to do so, but 15 of the 18 Karen boys played at least one sport, with rugby and soccer the two most popular.
The senior boys rugby team finished fifth at the B.C. double-A tier 1 championships in late May.
They could have finished higher, but surrendered the deciding points on the final play in a heartbreaking 31-28 opening-round loss to the eventual semifinalists from Brentwood College, the longtime private school powerhouse from Vancouver Island.
“The Karen kids have such a respectful nature and that makes them so receptive to coaching and feedback,” said Saints rugby coach Jordan Howlett. “And at the end of the day, so much of it comes down to their attitude and their determination.”
Adds True Bah Moo, a Grade 9 who captains his school’s junior varsity rugby team and also plays metro soccer for Langley United: “Growing up in the camps, we loved sports, but we didn’t even have a ball to play with. So we’d get a bag and fill it with dirt.
“When you’re new to a country and you want to find a way to relate to your new friends and to fit in, sports is a good way to do that.”
Higher understanding Tomlinson’s tenure as principal began a year after the first Karen students had arrived on campus.
“There was a language barrier, there was a culture barrier and there was a learning barrier,” she recalled. “And we had nothing to scaffold on.”
Yet traction was very soon established, and from more humble goals of basic numeracy and literacy skills, the bar has continually been set higher.
“Now we’ve got Karen kids graduating on Dogwoods (B.C. high school diplomas) and going on to post-secondary,” Tomlinson adds. “But in the case of those that don’t, we’re getting them work experience.”
It’s all about providing opportunity. Like the one afforded Hem Let Knyaw, a football and rugby player who is already receiving post-secondary credits through a BCIT-sponsored pipefitter/plumbing program offered
“The challenges for all of them have been astronomical,” Tomlinson said, “but these kids are starting to get the same opportunities as the rest of our kids, and that is amazing.”
Growing up fast
Signature moments of success can never be ignored, but at the heart of it all, the daily struggles for the Karen families continue.
They have left lives and loved ones behind on the other side of the world, paying an emotional toll in their search for a better way of life. And away from the refugee camps, the conflict in their native land continues.
“The parents have had a lot of trauma and a lot of them have mental health issues,” said Sadler, the school settlement worker, of the Karen adults who often work two jobs and typically raise large families in low-income housing in Langley’s inner city.
“We need to look at the families holistically, because if mom and dad are doing poorly, then that tends to affect the kids in school.”
In a lot of instances, the kids have been thrust into more mature roles, their greater adaptability to a new culture making them a critical part of the family dynamic.
“The parents still don’t speak the language, so the kids have to do a lot of the interpreting and they’ll go with their parents to things like medical appointments,” said Tomlinson. “They have become, in a lot of ways, like parents.”
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PHOTO: True Pay Na Moo graduated from Langley Secondary in 2016. (Mark van Manen/PNG)
Honouring a painful past
True Pay Na remembers the stories she was told in her childhood, of family and friends grabbing whatever possessions they could, fleeing their villages in advance of the Burmese military.
“Sometimes families would get split up,” she was told.
In November 2014, accompanied by Sadler, True Pay Na returned to her former refugee camp, and although it was so much more ramshackle than she remembered it to be as a young girl, she at once felt a compassion and a connection that she doesn’t want to let slip away.
“At first I thought I was going to go to (university) right away, but now I think I am going to do a program called YWAM (Youth With a Mission),” she says of working with the international volunteer group. “So in 2017, I am going to spend six months in Thailand.”
She hopes to reconnect with her roots and some day to make a difference for her people in whatever way she can.
And Say Say? “I want to become a police officer,” she said. “That’s going to be kind of tough.
“But I know that I want to go to school and get a job where I can help people. I know that sometimes you just need someone to tell you that you can do this.”
At Langley Secondary and at its neighbouring middle and elementary schools, that is the message being sent.
“I’d never seen a place so beautiful as when we got to Vancouver,” Say Say recalled. “There was a bridge and there was a river and I looked out and I thought, ‘This is heaven.’”
It was the day that she and all her fellow Karen refugees realized that the world was not flat.
– Howard Tsumara is a reporter with the Vancouver Province.
PHOTO: Karen students at Langley Secondary are well represented on the school’s senior boys rugby team, which finished fifth at the B.C. double-A tier 1 championships this spring. Front, from left: Sbar Pare Saw, K’pawshee Htoo, Meeka Gay. Back, from left: Kennedy Shwe, Eh Tha Taw, Ser Ler Pwe, Gay Lah Eh, Eh Hset Ta and Kmwee Htoo. (Mark van Manen/PNG)