By Matthew Masin
Paw Spai Moo has lived more of her life inside a refugee camp than anywhere else.
She and her family fled from their home in Burma to a refugee camp with homes made of bamboo when Paw Spai Moo was just a 1-year-old.
They ate United Nations-provided rice and fish paste for nearly every meal. Paw Spai Moo’s palate still picks fish paste over her high school’s hamburgers. The spaghetti is okay, though, she said.
Paw Spai Moo, who is now 18, remembers landing in Lincoln, Neb. She was sad at first. Few Karen people lived near her, and if they were Karen, chances were they were not from the same part of Burma as her. “I just kept to myself,” she said.
Along with her mother and father, Paw Spai Moo’s cousin also was able to come to Lincoln with her. Although he was technically her cousin, Paw Spai Moo referred to him as “brother” because, “that’s how close we were” she said. Her “brother” died of lymphoma only three years after arriving in America. Paw Spai Moo remembers the exact moment: 9:45 p.m., Sept. 22, 2012. He was only 19 years old.
As is often the case for a young refugee with good English skills, Paw Spai Moo is the head of her home. Her parents, who work together at a meat processing plant, say they like their jobs. Paw Spai Moo believes this is because they work hard so Paw Spai Moo can get a good education and someday get a better job and provide for their family. Paw Spai Moo reads her parents their bills, helps rent cars and explains the rent. Kelsey Lee, who runs the AmeriCorps after-school program at Lincoln High School, which Paw Spai Moo attends, describes her as “the cultural liaison for her family.”
Despite all of the adult responsibilities Paw Spai Moo shoulders at home, Lee said she handles all of it in stride. “She has never vocalized the stress she feels at home.”
Lee spends time with Paw Spai Moo two or more times a week, at the Life After High School program Lee runs in the library. The group helps students create a plan for what to do after graduation “without pressuring them to go to college,” Lee said.
Paw Spai Moo, however, wants to go to college. In fact, she already knows exactly what she wants to do.
“I want to be a nurse, because I like helping people,” Paw Spai Moo said.
Helping others is something Paw Spai Moo is already accustomed to. Whether it’s encouraging other students to come to the Life After High School program or helping her parents with money, Paw Spai Moo is there with an open heart and helpful hands.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Paw Spai Moo and Lee meet with other Karen students to work on their newest project, “Tah Ka Pal,” a multimedia project Lee started. The project allows Karen students to tell their stories through several different forms of media. Paw Spai Moo loves traditional Karen fashion and intends to let everyone know about it.
“A tireless worker,” is how Susan Hertzler, an English Language Learner teacher at Lincoln High, describes Paw Spai Moo. “She isn’t afraid to speak up if she doesn’t understand an assignment,” Hertzler said. While many students in Hertzler’s ELL class might sit silent and get lost in class, Paw Spai Moo either “always has her work done or comes with questions so she can finish her work.”
Math class is Paw Spai Moo’s favorite. It’s the same concepts she’s learned, no matter the language. “There’s no English, it’s just numbers,” Paw Spai Moo said. “I’ve always liked that.”
While Paw Spai Moo could graduate at the end of this school year, she intends to stick around for another year. Lee, Hertzler and Paw Spai Moo all agree this is the smartest choice. Lee said Paw Spai Moo is one of the only students she hasn’t had to thoroughly convince to stick around, and Hertzler said the desire to stay another year just goes to show “just how smart Paw Spai Moo is, and how she fully understands she can take advantage of the services offered to her.”