Each day seems very long: the day turns to a week, week turns to months, and months turn into a year. My family and I have been here in the United States for eight years now. When I look back on my life journey, it was like yesterday. I’ve come a long way. Life wasn’t always easy in this new country. We struggle, we cry, and we laugh together.
As I was growing up in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, I never thought that God would send me here to this new country. Living in this country is our impossible dream, but God is so good to us. I had never seen a real airplane in my life before we came here to the U.S. I was still dreaming when seeing an airplane for the first time because this could only happen in a movie. I thought it would be very nice riding a plane that day, but I got very dizzy, and I was about to throw up. The smells of the food were very strange, and I barely ate. I missed eating the food at home with rice and fish paste. After three very long plane rides, we made it to our new home in Georgia, in the southern part of the US.
The transition of living in a refugee camp to a big city was tough. We lived in a bamboo hut, and we didn’t have much to eat. Every few years, we always had to rebuild our bamboo house. The rooftop was made out of tree leaves. I wouldn’t say that I liked the rainy season because our house would get wet here and there since the rooftop had many holes. However, one of my favorite things to do at night was looking up at stars through those holes. Actually, it is very nice looking at the stars and sleeping under the bright moonlight. In the refugee camp, we also got free food: rice, oil, fish paste, and other necessity for each family, but sometimes it was not enough.
I remembered one time when my mom, my friend, and I were going out in the forest to find some bamboo shoots for the family to eat. If we walked a little further, about 10 or 15 minutes, a thick and hard metal wire fence surrounded us [the refugee camp]. Everyone was scared to cross or go to the other side of that fence. Even though I was born in the camp, there’s something I did not understand about that [refugee] world. Nonetheless, that day we crossed over the fence to find a new route to the forest.
I couldn’t even believe that we were brave enough to walk on the other side of that metal fence. Then we saw a very wide, straight street covered with cement. We tried to walk on it because we had never experienced how it felt to walk on a highway. I felt like I was walking on a never-ending street. I felt like I was walking toward “freedom” on that highway, but when I turned back and looked at my mom, I saw two cars coming toward us. I had no idea what it was, but I kept on staring at those cars. Suddenly, my mom yelled to us, “RUN!” I didn’t understand why my mother said that, but my friend and I ran as fast as we could, and we ran ahead of my mother. Even though we tried to run, we couldn’t escape. As I remember, there were several police wearing black uniforms sitting in the back of a truck. They forced us to get in the car. I had no idea where they were going to take us. I looked at my mom, her face full of worry, and I couldn’t do anything but close my eyes and pray to God. Soon, the car stopped, and they took us to a place where there were no trees — just plain fields — and there we had to plant trees for them. My mom, my friend, and I had to plant trees starting in the morning until sunset. We didn’t get to eat anything. But I didn’t mind because in the evening they took us back to the street where they picked us up earlier, and we walked back to the camp. I was SO happy that I got to go home.
Today, I realize the world is bigger than I thought. I was raised in a place where all the people I saw in my daily life were the same as me. We went to school, played with friends, ate, went to bed, and repeated it all over again the next day. I thought that was the entire world. I didn’t even know that the continents we learned about in class really existed in real life. They seemed unreal because we didn’t have any access to the internet, computers, YouTube, or things like that. I told myself, “Come on, you live in a refugee camp, and you will never get out of this place or explore the world.”
But I did get out.
Sometimes, I wonder how one girl from Mae La Refugee camp made it to a university and got the same opportunity as other people who are very different from her. I get to sit and study in the same classroom like others.
I came to the United States in 2012 when I was around 14 years old. I spoke zero English. I can speak my language called Karen (from my mom) and Burmese (from my dad). It was tough for me to learn another new language in this country. I thought that I would be able to speak English after five months living here, but I couldn’t speak or understand it at all. I went to a school called GVP, Global Village Project, which is for teenage refugee girls. I started reading baby books such as Dr. Sue, Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones, etc. I still remember on my very first day of school at GVP, when one of the teachers came up to me introducing herself and asked me something, maybe a very simple question like “How are you” or “What’s your name?” But I had no idea what she was saying to me, so I just looked at her and gave her a big smile. At the time, I felt very frustrated at myself, and I asked, “WHY?! Why is it so hard for me to understand the language?” Have you ever experienced a teacher talking to you in class but, unable to understand anything they say, you just look at them like a deaf person? I always blamed myself for not being able to speak and understand English. It took me a while, several months, years, to have a simple conversation and to understand English. But I didn’t stop there; I kept ongoing. I finished my middle school at GVP, and I graduated high school from Academe of the Oaks (the Waldorf school) in 2018. Now, I am a junior at Furman University.
There are many challenges while walking on this journey, but God provided me teachers, mentors, and friends who will support me on the way. I find strength and encouragement through these adversities, which makes me keep going in life. I am still struggling, but compared to the beginning, I am doing much better now. I never dreamed that it could be possible for me to attend middle school, high school, and a big university. Sometimes, I wonder how one girl from Mae La Refugee camp made it to a university and got the same opportunity as other people who are very different from her. I get to sit and study in the same classroom like others. I have food to eat, clothes to wear, and a rooftop that will keep me dry even in the rainy season. I am incredibly blessed! Being the first person going off to college in my family makes me feel honored. Believe it or not, every time I enter my new classroom on my very first day in college my legs are shaking. I also met many people in college. When I find my group of people, they are like my family and my biggest supporters. Sometimes, we stay up until midnight just to talk about school problems and life in general.
Having a few close friends in college, teachers that will support me, and family is all I need because they make life so much easier, and I don’t have to go through this life alone. Now, I have come a long way, and looking back, every step I took was worth it.
Ehsoe Moo is a student at Furman University, where she is majoring in Asian Studies. She speaks Burmese, Karen, English, and is currently studying Chinese. She was born in Thailand. Her parents were originally from Myanmar but had to flee when Burmese soldiers came and burned down their village. Her parents lived in a refugee camp for more than 20 years, during which time Ehsoe was born. She moved to the US in 2012 when the US was supporting the immigration of refugees.
Sections of this article were previously published in an interview: voxatl.org/refugee-camp/