By Molly Chapple
Awi Khan Nuam says her role as a mother is a careful balancing act as she raises four sons in a completely new and vastly different culture.
But it’s working so far, says Awi Khan Nuam, a Karen refugee who has been in the United States since 2008. She says she is happy to be in America, where she believes anything is possible if you work for it.
Raising children is not always easy for refugee families because of the cultural differences.
Many refugee parents have a difficult time learning the new American ways of raising their children, Lincoln author and psychologist Mary Pipher writes in her book “The Middle of Everywhere.” This can lead to what she refers to as a “power shift” where the children learn English faster than their parents and therefore may gain more control in the household.
Cody Hollist, associate professor of child, youth and family studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the emotional responses of coming to America can either strengthen or strain relationships between refugees and their children.
“If the parents are really excited about being there and the kids aren’t, or vice versa, it just adds an extra layer of difficulty,” Hollist said. “That part is worse for older kids.”
Awi Khan Nuam, 33, and her husband are originally from Myanmar (Burma), but they moved to Malaysia to find better work opportunities. Their oldest son — Nang Mun Lian — was just 8 days old when he and his mother were arrested in Malaysia because she didn’t have proper documentation.
She raised her firstborn son in an immigration camp during the first month of his life. After 18 days and many calls by her husband to the United Nations, she and her son were finally released.
It was the police brutality in Malaysia that prompted Awi Khan Nuam and her family to apply for refugee status and eventually arrive in the United States in 2008. They now have four sons between the ages of 3 and 9 who attend school in Lincoln.
Coming to America has been known to cause many family problems, Pipher says, especially because some parents may want their children to stay true to their traditional culture and not become completely “Americanized.”
But when it comes to discipline, Awi Khan Nuam favors the American view.
“Here they don’t use spanking. It is law,” she said. “My country is not like that. That American rule is very good.”
As a young schoolgirl in Myanmar, Awi Khan Nuam recalls being spanked and hit on the feet and the hands with a stick by her teachers. That may be one reason why she likes the teachers in America. She said she appreciates the way that American teachers speak kindly and gently to their students.
“My children like school very much because the teachers are very good,” she said.
In her country, public school is not free. She said she thinks the learning environment is not as good in Myanmar because if one doesn’t have money to buy a tutor, the school work is too difficult for children of middle and working class families.
“We don’t have money and no tutor. It was very difficult for me,” she said. “It is very, very expensive for school (in Myanmar).”
School communication struggles
In America, many refugees struggle with understanding the U.S. school system. Dakheel Ahmed, refugee case worker and employment specialist at Catholic Social Services, said communication between schools and refugee parents can be difficult. This is especially true for non-English speaking parents, he said.
“When school calls the parents, they have no idea what they’re talking about so they (parents) pretty much ignore it,” Ahmed said.
Because new refugees are busy trying to find a job and learn English, it is difficult for them to make family time. Simple things such as deciding when bed time should be and helping children do their homework may become stressful for refugee parents, Ahmed said. Some refugee parents may not agree with the way Americans raise their children, causing more tension in family life.
Awi Khan Nuam said she doesn’t have many concerns about the way Americans raise and discipline their children. However, she said it bothers her that some parents drink alcohol or smoke in front of their children. She said she sees this happen a lot on TV and is afraid this might lead children to drink later in life.
It turns out her fears are normal because Pipher’s book notes the tendency of refugee children to take up smoking, drinking and gang activity when they come to America. This rebellion may be due to the desire for these children to fit in or it may be a result of the stress of adapting to a new culture.
“I tell my two older kids they need to respect (adults),” Awi Khan Nuam said. “In my country too, my parents said, yeah, I need to respect.”
Hollist said culture plays a big role in the expectations of children’s behavior both at home and at school.
“It’s hard for kids when they go to school and see one type of expectation of behavior from their friends in the culture they are moving into and then they go home and have a different set of expectations,” he said. “A lot of the time they quickly adapt and learn to have different behaviors at home and at school, but it’s difficult for kids too.”
Staying culturally connected
Pipher refers to this phenomenon as “cultural switching.” Many refugee children will learn to act more American while at school, then behave the way their parents expect them to while at home. Refugee children may feel pressured to meet the expectations of their parents to stay true to their traditional culture.
Awi Khan Nuam said she keeps her children connected to her traditional Karen culture by reading them passages of the Bible in her traditional Zomi language. It is her Baptist religion that keeps her family close, she said. In fact, she said she doesn’t have many concerns for her sons growing up in America. She uses the power of prayer to keep her mind at ease.
“I am not concerned for future,” she said. “Because God, he makes everything. I trust him.”
As for her sons’ futures, Awi Khan Nuam hopes at least one of them will be a pastor and help teach others about their faith.
“I tell them, you have this American knowledge, you need to work hard,” she said. “In my country there are very poor people, a lot of poor people, and you need to sponsor and you need to mission. I tell them some people, they don’t know about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and you need to tell.”
Awi Khan Nuam’s oldest son, Nang Mun Lian, 9, said he wants to be a doctor when he grows up. He told his mother a doctor makes a lot of money and there are a lot of sick people he wants to help.
Awi Khan Nuam is happy that America offers so many opportunities for her children. But it is the kindness she has encountered that makes her love the United States.
Her favorite part of living here is the friendliness and generosity of the people she has met. She said she particularly likes the welcoming Nebraska smiles she receives while out in public.
“Here, we are talking and say hello and we smile and everything is good. Some people in America smile and I am very happy on the inside,” she said. “In my country, people are not smiling. I like it, it is very different from my country.”
Although Awi Khan Nuam said she faces challenges, such as learning the English language (she takes part in a Lincoln Literacy family literacy program), she has few complaints about life in America.
“My country is very difficult,” she said. “Here, everything we want we can work for.”