By Emily Nohr
Pawspai Moo is a smiley 16-year-old girl who, unlike some kids her age, loves math and dreams of becoming a lawyer.
But if you had asked Pawspai Moo a few years ago what she wanted to do when she grew up, she probably would have answered your question with a puzzled look.
Just three years ago, the bright Lincoln girl was living with her parents at Nu Poe Refugee Camp in Thailand.
“We couldn’t go outside the camp. If we go outside, it’s not OK,” she said.
She knew little about the United States. And while she spoke three languages, she understood just a handful of English words.
“And the ABC‘s,” she said, grinning.
Today, Pawspai Moo is a student at Lincoln High School learning English through ELL classes, one of the thousands of refugees living in Nebraska.
Just how many others there are like her, nobody knows for sure.
Since 2000, more than 6,100 refugees have been resettled in Nebraska, according to data collected by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2011 alone, 738 refugees from 13 countries arrived in Nebraska.
But the DHHS data represents only those people who were resettled officially in the state – refugees like Pawspai Moo and her parents – not people who moved here after originally being placed in another city.
That means the data almost certainly underestimates the number of refugees living in Lincoln today, said Karen Parde, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services refugee program coordinator. Refugees who moved away from their original resettlement site when they first arrived in the United States are considered secondary migrants, she said.
“They have the same life that you or I have. If they want to move, they can pick up and move,” Parde said. “We have terrible numbers on secondary migration, because they don’t have to tell us if they’ve moved.”
Based on conversations with people in refugee communities across the state, Parde said, it’s safe to say that a considerable number of people move to Lincoln through secondary migration.
“More often than not, the refugees that I ask say they’ve come here from a different state,” she said. “We have no good numbers and no data telling us this. It just appears we have lots of secondary migration.”
One of the newest – and fastest growing – groups of refugees to move to Nebraska is the Karen. The Karen typically come from Burma or Thailand, where an ethnic and political war has been raging for more than 50 years.
According to federal DHHS data, nearly 600 people from Burma and another 287 people from Thailand have arrived in Nebraska since 2000. Most of their resettlement started in 2008 and hasn’t let up since.
People within the Karen community, however, guess that there are thousands of Karen in Nebraska.
“I could easily believe Lincoln has 1,000 to 1,500 Karen,” Parde said. “The Karen have figured out how to be successful here very quickly.”
Keeping DHHS resettlement figures isn’t the only way refugee growth is tracked. Lincoln Public Schools data from its English Language Learner (ELL) Program also reveal that Lincoln’s refugee population is growing.
For the 2011-2012 school year, for example, the LPS ELL program included 2,212 students who spoke 56 different languages other than English. Just 10 years ago, during the 2000-2001 school year, the program had 1,452 students speaking 42 languages.
Today, the most-spoken languages include Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Karen, Nuer, Kurdish, Ukrainian, Russian, Burmese and Farsi.
Many of those languages weren’t even on the list 20 years ago, said Cindy West, an LPS ELL instructional coach who has been with the district for 30 years.
“Back when I started in 1981, it was Vietnamese and Cambodian almost exclusively,” she said. “The (ELL) program has changed dramatically.”
The majority of Spanish speakers who are part of the LPS ELL program are likely immigrants. Meanwhile, students who speak other languages, such as Arabic, Vietnamese or Karen, are likely refugees or children of refugees, West said.
In some cases, students speaking those languages may be children of visiting professors or students at Nebraska universities and colleges.
“But the majority are refugees,” West said. “Others are few and far between.”
Growing numbers of students and the languages they speak means more bilingual liaisons are necessary. LPS currently employs 21 bilingual liaisons.
Because the district cannot cater to all 56 different languages its students speak, the liaisons cover only the dominant languages it serves. Some liaisons are able to speak multiple languages.
“We have one young woman who speaks six languages,” West said. “She’s of Kurdish heritage. She speaks Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi, Poshto, Urdu and English.”
Lincoln High School ELL teacher Sharon Kreimer said Karen students are currently the biggest new population. The district currently has 134 ELL students whose first language is Karen.
Working at LPS since 1980, Kreimer has seen similar growth in the Middle Eastern and Hispanic communities. She doesn’t expect the number of ELL students who are refugees to slow down anytime soon.
“But it’s hard to say,” she said. “It really depends on conflict in the world.”
In addition to learning English, Kreimer helps her students have discussions about culture. Many of her students who are refugees don’t talk much about being refugees, she said.
“They know why they’re here, but they can’t express it,” she said.
Kreimer has seen many of her ELL students graduate and do great things. Most of their success can be attributed to their “amazing attitude.”
Success for refugees comes in a variety of forms, Kreimer said. Often times it’s jobs, which can be measured, in part, by how permanently established a group becomes.
“There’s large numbers of Karen in Omaha and even in Lincoln who have purchased homes,” Parde said. “I’ve been told there’s over 100 Karen families in Omaha who have purchased homes.”
Refugees, like the Karen, are attracted the Nebraska because often they want to join friends and family who have found success here. The state also has a low cost of living compared to other states, and the state’s unemployment rate has remained relatively low for the past few years, suggesting people can find jobs easier than in other places. Nebraska’s unemployment rate in March was at 4 percent, the second lowest in the nation.
Parde said the influx of refugees living in the state is beneficial for people wanting to learn more about other cultures.
“The option for having cultural experiences not just in Lincoln and Omaha, but in Sioux City, Grand Island, Lexington and Crete, is a strong possibility,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
For young refugees like Pawspai Moo, the future is bright. Though she still finds English reading and writing assignments difficult, she’s confident her love of math will take her far.
“I think becoming a lawyer is hard, but I want to do it for my future,” she said, smiling.