I did not know who I was until I came to the United States. I loved my childhood life. In the Mae La Camp, in Thailand, I still remember walking in the forest with my friends to find a bamboo shoots for our family to eat.
But even though I was born there, in the camp, there’s something I did not understand about that world. If we walked a little further, about 10 or 15 minutes, there was a thick and hard metal wire fence that surrounded us. Everyone was scared to cross or go to the other side of that fence. Some people tried to cross the line, and they would not come back for two or three years. One day when I was about 12 or 14, my mom and I went to the forest to find some vegetables and bamboo shoots. We knew that we shouldn’t cross or go to the other side of that fence, but I kept begging her and we did cross the line that day.
I couldn’t even believe that we were so brave to walk on the other side. 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 to freedom on the highway, but when I turned back and looked at my mom, I saw two cars coming toward us. I had no idea what cars were, but I kept staring at them.
Even though we tried to run, we couldn’t escape. As I remember, there were several police who were wearing black uniforms and sitting in the back of a truck. They forced us to get in the car, and 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 field — where we had to plant trees for them. My mom 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 got us earlier, and we walked back to the camp.
I was happy that we got to go home, a house made out of bamboo, with a roof made out of dry leaves. I love my bamboo house, because at night you can see the stars through a hole in our roof (because there are so many holes). Sometimes, we really had a problem when it rained. Anyway, I still love my home, my birthplace, which I will never forget.
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 and went to bed. I thought that was the whole entire world. I didn’t even know that all the continents which we learned about in class really existed in real life. They seemed unreal because we didn’t have any access to the internet, computer, YouTube or things like that. Come on, I told myself. You live in a refugee camp and you will never get out from this place or explore the world.
But I did get out.
I came to United States (our third country) in 2012, when I was around 14 years old, and I had no idea why I came here. It was at a time when United States wanted some of the refugees to come to this country. My mom is the one who told my dad that she wanted to take this opportunity. At first, my dad refused, but my mom was so motivated because she doesn’t want her family to end up in the camp.
At first, people kept asking me why I came to the United States. Then, it was so hard for me to answer them.
I spoke no English. I spoke my own language in Karen (from my mom) and Burmese (from my dad). It was really hard for me to learn another new language in this country. My first school here was the Global Village Project (GVP), a school for teenage refugee girls). I still remember 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 big smile.
I always felt frustrated at myself and asked, WHY?! Why is this so hard for me to understand the language? Have you ever experienced when the teacher is talking to you in class and you don’t understand anything what they say but just look at them like a deaf person? I always blamed myself for not able to speak English and understand the language. I would literally get mad. Adapting to life in this country was driving me crazy. But each year, I felt like it was getting a little better. Then, I started liking the school and my new community.
Each of the students at GVP got her own mentor who looks after us when we move on to high school. Ms. Robbin was my mentor, and she’s also my piano teacher. I am so so grateful to have her in my life because she has been helping me with almost everything and even helps my my family, too.
After I finished school at GVP, I got the opportunity to go to Academe of the Oaks for high school. Four years flew by, and this is my very last year. I was truly so blessed to be there, and I am so proud to call Academe my home because I feel safe and I am surrounded by teachers and friends who were so loving and caring. I love my classmates, because every time when I did my presentation in front of them, I would always get nervous but they understand me and they knew that English is not my first language.
Now when people ask me why I came to the United States I can answer without hesitation. I will just simply tell them that it is because I want a better life.
Ehsoe, 18, is a senior at Academe of the Oaks and is active in Global Village Project.
Teens: Please join the VOX Investigates team and our community partners for a teen-led dialogue on Immigration on Dec. 9 at the Loudermilk Center. RSVP at bit.ly/VOXDEC9