IU's Burmese Refugee Scholarship Program

Each year, Indiana University brings four Burmese students to its campus as part of the Burmese Refugee Scholarship Program. These students are chosen because they have shown leadership potential as activists for democracy in their homeland and abroad, and will study fields such as journalism, social work, economics and political science. The highly competitive program was established by Congress in 1990. Five years later, IU took over the program, which is paid for by Department of State funds. By bringing these students to campus, IU is preparing them to not only continue working toward a democratic Burma after graduation, but also to become effective leaders in their homeland when democracy is restored. —Morgan Vanek

Refugee profile: Say Say Lah

"We are all travelers here" —A Burmese Indiana

Say Say Lah had been preparing for months, if not years. Upon graduation from high school in Mae La Camp in Chin State, she decided she wanted to be a nurse. Then, in the fall of 2005, she enrolled in the rigorous nine-month English Immersion Program in Umpium Mae. After graduating, she worked for the Karen education department for a year, and then she began interviews with a resettlement agency and homeland security. She waited through the summer, and then the fall.  Occasionally, she was interviewed; but finally, in late January, she was given a health screening and more interviews. Then, the 27-year-old flew to Indianapolis, ready to start a new life, dreaming of becoming a nurse in Indianapolis, and already translating for her fellow refugees.

Say Say Lah has a leg up on her fellow new arrivals. At EIP she learned to speak English fluently, as well as gaining critical thinking and needs assessment skills. For other refugees, it can be much harder to access the services in Indianapolis that are designed to help them. Churches and nonprofits work to help them. Catholic Charities and Exodus Refugee Immigration are the two groups who conduct resettlement in town, and they help the refugees get housing and jobs, easing the transition for the first six to eight months after a refugee has arrived in Indianapolis. However, as Say Say Lah explained, this is “not enough time for people to be self-sufficient,” and it is quite difficult for them to learn English in this timeframe. 

“When [the refugees] come back from work, they are very tired, so they cannot go to ESL classes.” Unfortunately, this means that many who have lived here longer, even for one or two years, still cannot speak English. They cannot even make their own appointments, so she and people from her church often help.

The rapidly increasing number of new arrivals into the Indianapolis community has been a strain on the groups that serve them. Exodus has tripled their work over the past year. They and Catholic Charities will be resettling approximately 900 Burmese by the end of this year. They are looking to address a wide variety of concerns for the refugees.

Despite the hardships, there are many opportunities. Say Say Lah plans to go to community college to become a nurse, after a few years of working at her job at Marshalls in Nora. And there are always plenty of opportunities to support her community — she often accompanies other Karen to appointments, and helps the church translate during dental check-ups. She also keeps busy scolding younger people in the community, admonishing them to remember the value of education.

Some of the youth, in their early 20s, aren’t as driven to succeed as Say Say Lah — nor did they have training such as EIP.

“I explain how you live in America,” Say Say Lah said. “We’re not in the jungle anymore — so you have to obey the rules,” she tells them. “But even though I told them, they just do whatever they want.”

What surprised Say Say Lah the most about Indiana? “The first time I came here [in January], the trees had no leaves, and I felt very sad.

“In Thailand and Burma, when the trees have no leaves it means they are dying.” Frightened and disturbed, Say Say Lah wondered if it meant all the trees were dying, or dead. “It is a surprise for me, and I feel very sad and depressed. Then some people explained to me. When the trees came out [this spring] the flower is very beautiful, that made me happy.” —MB & EJ



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