Rohingya Reunions: Wisconsin

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“Hey Soph, what are you doing this weekend?”

“Oh, I’m gonna be out of town. I’ll be in Wisconsin.”
“Again?!”

I’d be the last person to say that some of my favorite weekends are spent in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in the dead of winter. I’d also be the last person to say that chicken feet soup is starting to freak me out less. Yet here we are.

My Rohingya friends are there. They are the first ones I found that were resettled from the shelter in Thailand. Naturally, I’d do whatever I can to be part of their lives again, even if it means eating more chicken feet soup and hopping on a couple more airplanes.

Chicken feet, guys. Good eatin’

I’ve visited this Rohingya family 3 times now, each time I’ve done it a bit more creatively.

The first time, I found a roundtrip flight from Denver to Milwaukee for $38, took a bus from the airport, and hopped off when I felt I was safely in the middle of nowhere. I walked a couple miles and tracked down the house that they had shown me via Facetime and my successful Google Maps investigations.

The second time, I defeated all stereotypes (as a single white girl) and hitchhiked from the airplane (not the airport, the actual airplane) to the family’s house in Sheboygan. I even got free food from Culver’s. It was a good time.

The third time, I took a train from Chicago and ended up meeting a friend in Milwaukee who let me borrow his car for the weekend.

Who knows how I’ll get there the fourth time?

These Rohingya reunions are an interesting social experiment for me to see just what people think of America. I ask them to show me all of their favorite places in America and we make a weekend out of it.

My first weekend in Sheboygan went as follows:

  1. Surprising the family at the front door, just in time to eat a Rohingya meal the size of Thanksgiving
  2. Visiting their neighbors (who are all refugees and all decide to cook me a meal)
  3. Drinking 4 Redbulls in one sitting (they wouldn’t stop giving them to me…and I kept on drinking)
  4. Taking a trip to Walmart at 11:00pm, cleaning out the Serrano peppers in the produce aisle in preparation for our next meal.
  5. Blasting Bollywood music while driving…and going to McDonald’s at 2:00am because apparently “Teacher Sophie is still hungry.”
  6. Finally snuggling in bed with 4 kids and their mother…but not sleeping at all. Facetiming families in Bangladesh instead. Sleep? What is sleep?
  7. Finally sleeping at 4:00am only to be woken up at 6:00am for (you guessed it) another meal.

Food is serious business in the Rohingya culture. No kidding. That’s worth a whole other blog post.

Amidst the craziness and constant state of confusion (I regularly hop in the car with them with no idea where I’ll be going), I’m learning more about their story and their incredible journey. I had the privilege of visiting their family in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. It’s heartbreaking to know that they’ll never see their entire family again.

Meeting their family in Bangladesh

I’m just grateful for the day they let me into their family.

Since then, I’ve stood beside the son as he shared his story with his entire school. I walked the halls of the daughter’s middle school and met with her teachers. I spent a day in kindergarten class with the youngest who never knew English before — now he won’t shut up.


Sharing his story in front of the entire school. So proud of him!

These weekends are unpredictable and spontaneous and that’s what I love about them.

If you ask me what I’m doing next weekend, the chances are I’m probably visiting more Rohingya friends. That’s probably the only thing in my life that’s fairly predictable.

Rohingya Reunions: Utah

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“It took us two years to find you! But we found you!”

The last time we saw each other was at a shelter in southern Thailand, December 2015.

It’s been two years since this incredible family came to America. And I only just found out now. The past two years I thought they were still at the shelter where I found them in Thailand…still waiting for the day to be resettled.

Yet the entire time, they’ve been right at my doorstep.

I missed out on two years of being part of their lives. I blamed myself for this. I should have made more effort to find them. I should have made a couple more phone calls, asked a few more questions, stepped up my Facebook stalking skills.

But I didn’t.

I found out they were here through a Facebook friend request from Amir, the eldest son of the family. Checking my friend requests on Facebook is a deep dark hole of sifting through 1,300+ friend requests from obsessive Burmese fans. I usually avoid this daunting task, but this day I felt like sifting through the friend requests. And sure enough, there was a selfie of Amir. I knew him several years back, before he hit puberty and completely grew up. 2+ feet taller and sporting an Americanized middle schooler hairstyle, he still had that same familiar smile I remember.

We started messaging back and forth and I eventually called him. He picked up the Facetime call and his whole family was crowded around the camera, waving frantically and smiling at me. “We’re in America!!! Utah! When can you come to our house?”

As I’m Facetiming them, I frantically look up flights to Salt Lake City. A flight leaving next week, $60 round trip. Sold.

“Teacher, when are you coming?”

“I’ll be there…Friday!”

And just like that, I hopped on a plane to see them.

This wasn’t my first Rohingya Reunion. I know it won’t be my last. It’s difficult to put into words just how beautiful the moments are when I’m reunited with my dear friends I knew back in Thailand. Their mysterious past intrigued me. Their unknown future inspired me. I wanted to be part of their life, wherever it would take them.

And here I am, finally coming back into their lives again. I keep saying it’s two years too late, but the moment they opened the door and embraced me, those thoughts disappeared. Whether it’s two years or twenty years that I missed, I know that they would still open the door and welcome me back into their lives. That’s what it’s like to be part of the Rohingya family — and that’s something that’s never going to change.

College Unbound

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How I Walked Away with my Bachelor’s Degree in 14 Months — Debt-Free

In 2017, I traveled on 19 airplanes, visited 23 cities in 8 different countries, started my own business with 3 additional internships, and graduated debt-free with my bachelor’s degree.

I’d say 2017 was a fairly productive year on my end. None of it would’ve been possible without Western Governors University (WGU), a self-paced program that offered ultimate flexibility and affordability to pursue a college degree.

The traditional four-year college isn’t for everyone. It’s costly and time-consuming, but it’s the most common path to take, so why not just jump on the bandwagon? It’s difficult to be the small fish in a big pond, not to mention the part where you drown in a massive pile of debt. For those of you who are like me — restless, poor, and constantly looking for ways to “beat” the system, this post is for you.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I was able to finish my degree in this unconventional way, so I’m going to highlight some of my go-to strategies:

Credits

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CLEP, CLEP CLEP!

  • My work in high school (quite literally) paid off when I found a school that accepts AP credits. I managed to transfer in 33 credits from AP classes into WGU.
  • CLEP, CLEP, CLEP! Once I realized that WGU accepts CLEP credits, I started “CLEPing” out of the generic freshman classes. Each test costs between $80-$100 and you walk away with 3 college credits after studying for 1 – 2 weeks.
  • By the time I was accepted into WGU, I entered as a second semester sophomore, thanks to those AP and CLEP exams.

Time Management

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Starting my own business gave me the ultimate flexibility while gaining teaching experience.

  • WGU’s tuition is based on a 6 month flat-rate tuition. This means I can take as many classes as I want during a 6-month period and pay the same amount. The moment I realized I could compete against myself, I knew that this was the perfect school for me. A constant competition to win against myself!
  • I started my own piano teaching business for ultimate work flexibility. It also gave me a steady income while gaining business and teaching experience. I ran my piano business from 3:00 – 8:00pm, leaving plenty of time before and after work for studying.
  • Each class was self-paced, which means I could take a class for a week and pass the exam or stretch it out over 6 weeks. I mapped out a plan to crank out the easy classes quickly so I could prioritize the more difficult ones.

Setting Goals

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A plane ticket to Nepal was the greatest motivation to finish Finance and Accounting.

  • I made a point to keep myself motivated by setting goals for every class.
  • Kayak Explore was my ultimate carrot on a stick. I only allowed myself to check it out after I would pass a class…and I usually would end up purchasing an impulsive plane ticket to some exotic place (hence, the 19 airplanes).

Finances

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When your parents pick you up at the airport in traditional Burmese longyis. #relationshipgoals

  • WGU is a reasonable school and with their flat rate tuition, you can make it as cheap or as expensive as you want. It all depends on how quickly you can get through the classes.
  • I also jumped on the opportunity to find random scholarships and was awarded a couple of them. Even those small $500 per semester scholarships add up!
    Running my own business helped pay my way through school and save up for traveling.
  • To graduate debt-free, I decided to move back in with my parents to cut costs on living expenses. This was a lifesaver as I am not tied down by any debt and can take off whenever I want. Plus, they were always there to pick me up from the airport at odd hours of the night.

    Traveling

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Traveling motivated me to finish school even faster.

 

  • Online school can get lonely very quickly. Without classmates, it was difficult to find community and friends. Luckily, with the flexibility of online school, I was able to travel quite frequently and meet people along the way while keeping up with classes.
  • Traveling not only let me meet incredible people, but it also motivated me to study and finish school even faster (so I can travel more, of course!).
  • Online school gave me the flexibility to take classes wherever I wanted — coffee shops, libraries, airports, buses, etc.

Professors

  • The major reason why people don’t choose online school is because they feel like they’re treated as a number and cannot establish a personal relationship with their professors.
  • My experience was quite the opposite. WGU is known for its personalized one-on-one faculty support designed to fit the modern life.
  • I had an incredible student mentor who called me once a week to discuss my progress, goals, and study habits. She would answer my emails and phone calls at anytime of the day, even on the weekends. The only time she didn’t call me was when I was in Nepal and had no service.
  • When I would send in a paper to a course professor, they would call me up and walk me through the paper, sentence-by-sentence, to ensure that I had the highest success. That kind of one-on-one attention doesn’t happen in a typical state college.
    WGU has gone above and beyond to ensure that their services are accessible for students at anytime.

Study Less, Exercise More

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Morning runs with Jackson beat last-minute cram sessions any day.

  • In high school, I locked myself in my room and studied all day long. On snow days, weekends, and holidays — all I did was study. I decided to approach college in a different way, creating a new philosophy: Study less, exercise more.
  • I spent my mornings running up mountains instead of doing last minute cram sessions before exams. I started trying out new activities – Freeletics, trail running, rock climbing, kickboxing, yoga, etc.
  • I was able to think and perform more effectively in school and noticed a substantial increase in my exam grades. Now I realize that my parents were right the whole time…exercise really does change everything. Who knew?!

Staying Motivated

  • I was able to stay motivated by setting specific goals, travel plans, and weekly routines. A lot of people need the structure of a brick and mortar school to stay motivated and meet deadlines. With online school, I created my own deadlines and set my own exam dates. It worked out great for me, but online school isn’t for everyone.
  • If you are considering an online program, make sure you can create a system where you will stay motivated by setting specific deadlines.

Conclusion

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I didn’t know anyone to approach college the way I did, so I was extremely hesitant to try it out. I decided to take a chance and try it out. Luckily it worked! If you’re interested in taking this approach to college, now you know that it is possible and quite accessible.

While online school isn’t for everyone, it’s a perfect alternative for those interested in pursuing a degree in a quick, affordable, and flexible manner. With the rise of MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) and schools like WGU, there are now options for individuals who choose to forgo the traditional 4-year college experience. I can confidently say that it was the best decision I made.

For You, A Thousand Times Over

Asia, Burma, Family, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Uncategorized

“Do you want to see something amazing?” Eight-year-old Mohammed asks as we approach the school playground. “I’m going to try the big kid monkey bars!” Mohammed sprints towards the larger playground designated for the older students.

“Whoa, those are pretty tall monkey bars! Are you sure you can do them?” I ask Mohammed as he reaches to grab the first bar that was several feet taller than him. He stops, turns around, looks me in the eyes and says, “For you, Teacher Sophie, I will do anything.”

He smiled his toothless Mohammed smile, turned around and jumped up to grab the first monkey bar — and fell. Several tries later, he caught hold of the bar and made his way across the monkey bars.

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In that moment, I saw the image of young Hassan from The Kite Runner — the moment when Amir wins the kite-fighting tournament in Kabul. Kite-fighting is a game where boys cover their kite strings in glass and try to sever the strings of the opposing kites. When a kite is struck down, boys will chase and retrieve it, claiming it as a prize. When Amir wins the tournament, Hassan sets off to catch the losing kite for him. Just before Hassan disappears around the corner, Amir yells out, telling him to make sure he comes back with the kite.

Hassan turns around, smiles, and yells back, “For you, a thousand times over!”

If you’ve read The Kite Runner or seen the movie, you’ll understand the significance of this statement. It becomes a recurring theme throughout the story, illustrating Hassan’s resilience and unconditional love for his best friend.

When I first met Mohammed, I was fascinated by him. Perhaps it was his adorable toothless smile or the way he played with his younger siblings. Or perhaps it was the fact that he possessed something that I’ve never seen in a Rohingya kid before: the innocence of a child.

It was refreshing to see the normal life Mohammed lives. His family fled Myanmar shortly after he was born. As refugees, they were resettled to Clarkston, Georgia, where they are raising their four children. Mohammed sees life the way normal children should. Going to school is routine, playing with friends is a necessity, and conquering the “big kid” monkey bars is the highlight of the century.

I wish I could say I knew more Rohingya children like Mohammed, but he’s different from the rest of them. He hasn’t seen the things they’ve seen. He hasn’t known the meaning of hunger. He hasn’t come face-to-face with death. As a refugee growing up in America, he has been protected from all of this.

When I looked into the eyes of the first Rohingya children I met, I could tell that they’ve experienced something I can only imagine. They’re startled by the smallest sounds and I rarely see them smile. They’ve seen things children shouldn’t see. They’ve become all-too familiar with the meaning of hunger and most of them have come face-to-face with death.

Unable to communicate with them, I gave them paper and crayons to draw pictures to describe their background. Their stick figures told the story all-too well: crowded boats, bodies in the water, people carrying guns, people running away, villages burning. Those drawings I saw in early 2015 are what introduced me to the Rohingya situation. As cliche as it sounds, I guess you could say that those are the drawings that changed my life. Since then, I’ve found myself on a journey with my Rohingya friends, watching this situation unravel into chaos and transform into what we have come to know as a genocide.

Over 480,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar since late August of this year. They flee to Bangladesh, seeking refuge in crowded temporary settlements along the border. More than half of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are children; often unaccompanied by adults. As if I haven’t seen it enough on the news, I’ve heard firsthand accounts of children who have seen their parents shot in front of them, girls being raped, and young children going missing.

Some people recently have protested against these Rohingya stories, arguing that the media has blown up the situation and is over exaggerating everything. While I agree that the media is not always the most reliable source of information, it’s hard to argue against the children’s drawings. These children wouldn’t be able to draw those images without seeing them firsthand.

As I watch the number of refugees increase day by day, I think of all the children arriving in Bangladesh and what kinds of drawings they would create. They never had the privilege to live a naive life. All they’ve known is violence, suffering, and survival. And yet they still remain some of the most resilient people I will ever know.

It’s hard to sit here on the other side of the world, knowing that I can’t do much to help these Rohingya people. All I can do is write about their stories and hope that I can spread awareness on what is going on. These are people who have been part of my life and shown me what true resilience means.

“For you, a thousand times over.”

The significance of Hassan’s statement is that shortly after he says this, an unspeakable event occurs that changes his life forever, taking away his innocence. Betrayed by his best friend, damaged physically and scarred emotionally, Hassan remains resilient through it all. Through his suffering, Hassan’s statement to Amir remained true. He dedicated his life to remaining loyal to his friend, no matter the circumstances. Not only is Hassan’s suffering similar to those of the Rohingya children, but so is the strength and resilience he demonstrates.

As I watch Mohammed scale the monkey bars at his school playground, I think of the similar characteristics he and Hassan both possess, but with one major difference. Mohammed still lives with the precious gift of a child’s innocence. That is something that is so rarely found these days.

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I try not to think of what life would be for him had his family not come to America. Mohammed’s family is privileged to start over in a new country, free from persecution and suffering.

I don’t know what will happen in the next couple of weeks for the Rohingya people, nor do I know how much longer Bangladesh can handle the influx of refugees. All I can do is be grateful for the Rohingya families that are safe and hope that the remaining families can find refuge soon. I’m grateful for having Mohammed in my life. Had his family not left Myanmar when they did, he might not even be alive today.

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Face to Face with Genocide

Asia, Burma, Family, Genocide, refugees, Rohingya, Uncategorized

Not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I was able to integrate myself into a quirky Rohingya family and follow them around the world. Despite the strong language barrier and logistical difficulties, this family has welcomed “Teacher Sophie” into their lives. They’ve taught me what it means to be resilient in a world full of chaos; how to tackle the curveballs that life throws at us head on. I try not to imagine what life would be like without Roshida and her family, but these past two weeks have shown me just how fragile life can be — and just how close a genocide that is 8,000 miles away can be.

I met Roshida and part of her family at a temporary refugee shelter in Thailand, where they arrived after having fled Myanmar by boat. Intrigued by their situation and how they came to Thailand, I wanted to learn more. I spent my afternoons teaching English to the women and children at the shelter. The more I taught, the more they revealed their story — and I finally began to understand the Rohingya situation from multiple first hand accounts.

I started to become more involved with the Rohingya situation. I quickly dove into news articles, documentaries, and contacted numerous human rights activists to learn more. While I wanted to do more to help out in Thailand, it was time for me to head back to the States. I left the Rohingya family with the notion that I would never see them again. By an absolute miracle, they arrived in Wisconsin about a year later. After reuniting with them in the States, I continued my Tour de Rohingya and traveled to meet Roshida’s husband and 18-year-old daughter in Malaysia.

Roshida was able to bring five out of her six children to Wisconsin, who have been thriving in the American schools. But Roshida can’t seem to integrate into her new American community. She would rather stay inside and constantly seek Skype updates on her family members that are scattered across Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia. After all, they provide the insider information that she needs to learn more about the Rohingya genocide that is currently underway.

One of our main contacts in Myanmar was Roshida’s sister. I met her over Skype several months ago while I was visiting Roshida in Wisconsin. As I was on the phone with her, about a dozen other villagers shuffled into the tiny shack to see my face over the lagging Skype call. They all gathered around and ate dinner in front of the cracked phone screen that showed my face.

This became a regular routine whenever I visited my Rohingya friends.We would eat dinner over Skype together. Though we spent most of the time staring at a frozen screen and constantly trying to reconnect the calls, it was neat seeing the constant effort maintained to keep in contact. They refused to let such separation deprive them of being united as a family.

On August 28th, as I was out for my morning run, I couldn’t stop thinking about Roshida. I had a feeling that something was wrong. The more I thought about her, the more urgency I had to contact her. I stopped on the trail, turned around, and sprinted back home. When I checked my phone, I had 35 missed calls over the past hour; all from Roshida.

She answered on the first ring after I dialed. She mustered up enough broken English to tell me that her sister in Myanmar was killed this morning — along with her entire village.

Denied citizenship in Myanmar, the Rohingya have no place to call home — and have become known as the world’s most persecuted people. Deprived of basic necessities and opportunities, the Rohingya have been rounded into ghetto-like camps with no hope for a promising future. The ongoing violence and persecution has led hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring countries, which is how I came to meet Roshida and her family.

However, this simmering conflict between the Rohingya and Myanmar people has recently shifted gears. Two weeks ago, a group of Rohingya insurgents launched a coordinated attack on Myanmar officials, killing 12 officers. This catalyst prompted a massive response from the Burmese government, launching a major escalation of violence towards the Rohingya people. Officials have opened fire on civilians fleeing the attacks, including women and children. 

Many displaced Rohingya, including one of Roshida’s friends, provide first hand accounts of the Myanmar soldiers setting homes aflame and firing guns around the villages. Hearing the tragedy of Roshida’s sister and her entire village provides merely a snapshot on what is going on in Myanmar. Those lucky enough to escape the shootings in the villages have no choice but to flee for their lives.

The unprecedented surge of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar has amounted to over 125,000 just in the past two weeks. Among these people is Roshida’s grandmother. She fled Myanmar on Sunday, September 3rd, in hopes to find safety in Bangladesh. We are still waiting for her phone call to tell us that she is alive. As the death toll rises and mass exodus continues, there’s nothing we can do anymore. We are face to face with a genocide that is more than 8,000 miles away. And all we can do is wait.

More updates to follow soon.

 

 

From Average White Girl to Rohingya Princess

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, Family, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Travel, Uncategorized

“Oh my, Teacher Sophie! We must make you look beautiful again! Come, come, I will help you!”

While this wasn’t the initial greeting I was expecting, I decided to go along with it.  One thing I’ve learned about my Rohingya friends is that they are brutally honest. It’s kind of refreshing, actually. Sometimes it’s less refreshing when you’re told that you need to become beautiful again…but I guess beauty is fleeting, right? So it’s only fitting that they help me find my beauty.

In doing so, I was put into the most glamorous, hot pink, bedazzled Burmese outfit she could find. She brought out all of her best makeup; lipstick, white powder (because my face clearly isn’t white enough), liquid eyeliner, all the essentials.

Hazara

After we got dolled up, Hazara and I embarked on a girls’ Tuesday night out. We went straight to the food court Wendy’s in the nearly-deserted mall. In my bedazzled pink Asian outfit. I received plenty of judgmental stares from people who must’ve been thinking, “Clearly this white girl needs to face reality and accept the fact that she is not Asian.” Then we walked around Macy’s and she bought me high heels that I didn’t even want, much less need. But she justifiably said it will make Teacher Sophie beautiful again, so it’s all good. Then she proceeded to jump on those coin operated kiddie rides and snap a bunch of selfies. Never a dull moment with my Rohingya friend, Hazara.

I went along with all of this because I was still in shock at the fact that I was suddenly reunited with one of the most significant people in my life. A girl who I thought I’d never see again. I finally got to see Hazara again, the 19-year-old refugee I befriended at a temporary shelter in Thailand.

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The last time I saw her, we made a promise that we would see each other again. The odds were definitely not in our favor. She was stateless in every country, confined to a temporary refugee shelter in southern Thailand. I was heading back to the other side of the world, ready to pursue my university degree. I shouldn’t have made that promise with her because I knew I would never see her again. But I had a nagging feeling that it might be true; we might just see each other again.

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I never thought I’d be wearing a hot pink bedazzled Asian outfit while walking through the streets of Clarkston with one of my students from Thailand. So yeah, that was pretty cool.

It’s always interesting to be part of the transition of refugees relocating to the States. Some view their resettlement to America as a second chance at life; an opportunity to start over. They make the most of every opportunity with a hunger for success, constantly pursuing their own version of the American Dream. In theory, this is how we believe every refugee responds when resettling to the United States. That’s not always the case.

I’ve talked to refugees in other countries who dream of coming to America. They believe that all of their problems will be erased once they set foot on US soil. In their eyes, America is the country where dreams come true and the impossible suddenly becomes possible.

The harsh reality hits them when they arrive here. New problems arise, expectations are not met, perspectives are changed. When this happens, their reaction goes one of two ways: they could either take what they have and run with it, making the most of every opportunity…or they could slip into a depression, longing to go back to a place that is familiar to them, despite the hardships they endured in that place.

Hazara fell victim to the depression that is so common with newly resettled refugees. I received a phone call from Hazara’s husband about 2 months ago. He told me of Hazara’s arrival and resettlement in America. He told me of her depression, anxiety, and refusal to go outside or eat anything. Hazara’s husband asked me to come out and visit. Maybe having someone familiar to her in this foreign country could help her. So I decided to come.

It broke my heart seeing Hazara, one of the liveliest, happiest girls I know, fall victim to depression. While I’ve dealt with my fair share of depression, it surprised me to realize that someone like Hazara would have the same thoughts that I once had for myself. It’s easy to let depression take over your own life. It’s difficult to watch it take over someone else’s life. It’s even more difficult when you’re viewed as the cure to their depression…or at least that’s how Hazara’s husband viewed my visit. He told me that I was the answer they’ve been waiting for…maybe the one who can end her depression.

Yeah, ok, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a person. Definitely not something I can accomplish either. But if Hazara needed a friend, I wanted to be the one to help. When I arrived in Clarkston, Hazara’s family welcomed me into their home. There were about a dozen people waiting in her apartment for me. They set up an extravagant straw mat with dozens of countless dishes filled with different curries, fruits, everything you can possibly imagine.

They fed me…constantly. To the point of death. Have you ever had someone shove a chicken leg in your mouth despite your desperate pleas of “NO” and “I’m not hungry” and “I can’t eat another bite”? Yeah, you think it’s funny…but when you’re literally at the point of tears because your stomach will explode with another bite, it’s really not that funny. But alas, my Rohingya friends never cease to amaze me with their obnoxiously extravagant hospitality.

Cooking is the main way Rohingya people show their appreciation. If you think of it in that way, every pound I gained was just a heart-filled pound of sheer appreciation and gratitude. Their gratitude stemmed from their belief that I was the solution to Hazara’s depression. They thanked me constantly for coming to visit her, for befriending her in Thailand, and for just being there for her. They Facetimed their friends in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand and shoved my face in the camera to show that “Teacher Sophie finally arrived.”

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While I was honored to be appreciated and loved by so many strangers, I hated the fact that they viewed me as the one who can change Hazara’s state of mind. No matter how hard I try, I can’t be the one to change Hazara’s life. They viewed me as the one who will save Hazara. The one who will change everything. I have no idea why they would put so much faith in me. I’m just a random white girl who enjoys singing Burmese songs and wearing Asian princess dresses while eating chicken feet.

Sometimes we think that the solution to our problems is something we don’t have right now; something new and exciting that’s always out of our reach. We think that if we could just find that solution, all will be fine. I know I’ve fallen victim to the mentality that I need to travel to a certain place, work a certain job, or study a certain degree to find the solution to my problems. The grass is always greener on the other side. The solution is somewhere far away, something I can’t find right here. To these refugees, the arrival of Teacher Sophie was the solution to Hazara’s problem.

What I’ve failed to realize in so many instances is that the support I need has been there for me the whole time. The people around me, the relationships I’ve built, the family that’s stuck with me through it all. That’s what really matters. I can keep chasing solutions in seemingly greener pastures, but when it comes down to it, it’s really the people around me who will help. This week helped me realize that when I saw Hazara’s family. Teacher Sophie may be able to help Hazara for a time, but the true help is the constant support and love from her family and friends right in front of her.

I spent my visit trying to help Hazara’s family realize this. Harder said than done, especially with the language barrier. I tried communicating that they’ve been there for her when I wasn’t. She’s one of the few refugees who has relatives in the same country, so it really is a miracle she has them during this transition to the States.

I hope that in time, Hazara’s family realizes all that they’ve done for her. They may think that I have a huge impact in her life, but they’ve made an even bigger, more permanent impact; something I could never do. While I may have been a friend for Hazara during a time when she needed one, they’ve been there for the entire journey. That’s what Hazara and I have in common. From Myanmar to Thailand and from Thailand to Georgia, Hazara’s support has been right in front of her the whole time. I hope that one day she realizes this.

Found in the Middle of Nowhere

Asia, Burma, English Teacher, refugees, Rohingya, Students, Thailand, Uncategorized

“Ahhh! Teacher!! Helloooo!” Absolute chaos erupted the moment I swiped to the right of my incoming Viber call. I usually ignore anonymous Viber calls. Most of the time, it’s just another die-hard Burmese fan who’s trying to ask me if I have a “lover” (No really, I wish I was joking). I had no idea who was on the other end of the phone, but after seeing my phone ringing constantly for 5 minutes, I figured I should probably pick up. A slow, pixelated video showed up on my screen. My heart jumped when I saw their faces appear. It was one of the Rohingya families from the refugee shelter in Thailand.

How in the world did they find my number? They must be calling me from the shelter. They were excitedly trying to tell me something,  but I couldn’t understand amidst the simultaneous yelling of six people on the other end. When things finally settled down, I asked them what they were trying to tell me. “Teacher, America! America!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all the kids really talked about at the shelter, so this was nothing new. I figured they just wanted me to tell them about how America is, so I started speaking. Just then, I looked at the video and realized that one of the little boys was wearing a jacket. A snow jacket. That’s definitely not something you wear in Thailand.

“Yasin Zuhar, where are you right now?” I asked, hoping to hear the answer that I dreamed of, but knew I would never hear.

“Teacher! I’m in America!”

Suddenly everything stood still.

“What?”

Then the whole family chimed in and yelled, “Yes, Teacher! In America! Right now!”

So it’s true. The impossible finally became possible. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I just started laughing uncontrollably. Then I started crying. I left this family in Thailand, thinking I would never see them again. The odds of them being relocated to the US out of the 65 million refugees in the world were incredibly slim. The UNHCR officers told me there was no chance I would see them again. It would take years for them to be resettled in the States. And here they are.

I asked them where they were in America.

“Sheboygan, Wisconsin!”

Never been there, but I immediately booked a flight to Milwaukee. I thought I left this family forever only to find that I’ve found them again…in the middle of nowhere…in Sheboygan.

When I knocked on their front door, Yasin Zuhar answered. He was one of the first Rohingya children I met in Thailand, so it was only fitting that he was the one to open the door. He was wearing giant snow pants with a beanie and long-sleeved adidas shirt. Already such an American. 

When he saw me, his eyes lit up and he jumped into my arms. His sisters, brothers, and mother joined and within minutes, we were all reunited.

There were two things I noticed about seeing them for the first time since Thailand. First, their English had improved tremendously. It was amazing to see the progress they’d made since I first met them as shy, fresh-off-the-boat refugees in Thailand.

They could barely speak two words of English and now they are telling me about their new school, their American friends, and how cold snow is on their feet when they try to run outside without their boots (no kidding).

The second thing was the sheer gratitude they showed me. They were so shocked that I would actually come visit them. They called every family member they could contact…this included the mother’s eleven siblings, first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, mother’s sister’s husband’s distant relatives, etc. Contacting all of the relatives took roughly the entire trip’s duration, which spanned over a couple of days. I was shocked at how they were able to stay in contact with so many friends and family, despite their transient lifestyle.

I guess the only thing that they noticed about me was the fact that I had lost some weight since I last saw them. “Oh no, Teacher! Very small! Not good!” So they decided to make it their mission to provide me with food at all hours of the day and night. When I say all hours, I mean all hours. They woke me up at 2:00am and prepared a fully cooked meal for me (after giving me 3 cups of instant coffee to stay awake for the meal). Any time I would finish something, they would prepare a new meal. Not just a snack. A homecooked meal. That was their way of showing their gratitude for me. Apparently they were trying to make up for the hours of English class I gave them in Thailand…in food.

It was a never-ending cycle of food on my plate; absolute heaven for a 15-year-old high school football player. Not so much for me. I reached a point where I wanted to cry because I was so full. So they saw my face and thought, “She must be hungry!” and whipped up some homemade green chicken curry.

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Breakfast at 6am.

They were so excited to show me to their favorite hangout spots, which included Walmart and McDonald’s. They were enamored by the fact that we could visit Walmart at 1:00am; so that’s exactly what we did. The children showed me how they can bike around town to get everywhere. They told me how they aren’t afraid of the police here. They took me door to door and introduced me to the other refugees in the area. They told their story to the neighbors and I instantly became the token English teacher. This also meant I was invited over to all of their homes for a home cooked meal. I felt as though I was in a foreign country…in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Towards the end, I sat the kids down and asked them a question I had been wondering for quite some time.

“Are you happy here?”

“Yes, Teacher! Very, very, very happy.”

After over a year of worrying and wondering how they are, it was such a relief to hear those words. Everything I dreamed for these kids is coming true. They are on a path to achieve their goals.

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Thailand, July 2016

The best part is that I can be part of their journey. I can see these kids grow up. I get to be here to watch it all happen…and gain 10 pounds in the process.

I’ve spent most of my life moving around, so I’ve become fairly accustomed to saying goodbye. People come and go in certain chapters of your life. You may not see them ever again, but they were there for you during a time when you needed them. That’s what I’ve always thought and that’s how I’ve always lived. Very rarely does someone from my past come back into my life. I’m still trying to process that these friends who I thought I’d never see again have unexpectedly come back into my life.

And they’re not the only ones. I’ve discovered that more families from that shelter in Thailand have been relocated to the States. It’s my goal in the next couple of months to visit all of them. Teacher Sophie’s “Tour de Rohingya” shall commence all across the United States! I’m so excited to finally have them back in my life again. They’re here to stay and so am I. It’s moments like these when you realize just how truly beautiful and surprising life is.

From Rwanda 1994 to Myanmar 2016

Asia, Burma, English, English Teacher, ESL, Family, Rohingya, Students, Thailand, Trafficking, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

“I had a good friend from Rwanda. We met in high school. She was an exchange student at our school. We became best friends. But she went back to Rwanda after studying abroad in the States.”

“Oh wow, that’s really cool! Do you still keep in contact? Have you visited her in Rwanda?”

“No. She died in the genocide.”

Those moments when you’re completely speechless. Those casual conversations that suddenly take a turn and you weren’t prepared for what you were about to hear. This was one of those conversations.

We don’t usually like to have these kinds of conversations. They’re unpleasant and quite frankly, seem to “dampen the mood” in the room. I get it, it’s not fun to talk about. After coming back to the States, I’ve realized that it’s a lot easier to avoid these rough conversations. In Thailand, it seemed so effortless to talk to my students about their deceased parents, to listen to them describe the day they fled for their lives, or hear about how they will never be able to contact their brother because he disappeared in the middle of the night. That’s because it’s a reality for the people there. Not as much in America.

The closest we get to a reality like this is by the news alerts on our phones, which we’ll check if we have a couple minutes to spare. Maybe we’ll scroll through the article for a minute or two to read about what’s going on in the world. Another children’s hospital is bombed in Syria, another train crash kills 100 people in India, another civil war rages in some distant country in Africa. It’s terrible to say, but the topic of mass death is becoming somewhat of a regular topic in the news. Every other news alert I read on my phone has something to do with a shooting, a bombing, or a natural disaster that has killed hundreds, if not thousands.

“Please, let’s talk about something else. This is so depressing.” I hear that a lot. It’s easy to take a quick 30-second glance at these news reports and then carry on with our regular lives. It’s easy to forget about these news reports…because there’s just going to be a new one tomorrow morning and we’re going to feel depressed once more. And yet again, we can’t do anything about these news alerts. All we can do is read them and carry on with our regular activities. We’re powerless.

I’ve finally reached a tipping point with this realization of feeling powerless. A couple days ago, I received an email from my good friend in Malaysia. He’s a Rohingya and I had the privilege of meeting him in Kuala Lumpur where he shared his incredible story with me. Rendered stateless in Myanmar due to his status as an ethnic minority, he grew up in a refugee camp, was trafficked several times, and has since dedicated his life to fight for the freedom of his people. I admire him so much and the passion he has for seeking justice for his people. He emailed me a report to proofread (my job as an English teacher never ends!), a report that made this whole Rohingya situation just a little more real for me. The report is dense and lists in explicit detail the injustices that the Rohingya have faced against the Myanmar government just from October of this year.

I think the reason why it hit me so hard was because each recorded date and event I read about in the report made me recall exactly what I was doing that very same day.

On October 10th, while seven Rohingya villagers were shot down in Rakhine State by the Burmese security forces, I was studying at a coffee shop.

On October 25th, while five girls aged 16 – 18 were raped by security forces in another village, I was planning my epic Halloween costume (which was pretty epic, by the way).

On November 12th, while the Burmese army opened fire with helicopters near villages in Maungdaw, I was teaching a piano lesson.

Talk about putting things into perspective. This reality hit me the night before Thanksgiving, when I was finally able to fully grasp what exactly is going on in Myanmar right now. These events are seeming all-too familiar…they make me think of the 1994 Rwanda genocide because that’s what these events are becoming. A genocide. And it’s going on right now.

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The very thought of losing one of the Rohingya kids I met was hard enough, let alone all of them. I thought of all the incredible Rohingya people I have met and of their family members they spoke of; the ones who were still in Myanmar. Are they alive? Or are they going to become another statistic in another genocide? Maybe they’re already a victim of genocide…I just don’t know.

I became overwhelmed with this feeling of powerlessness. Here I am proofreading an English report that is documenting the lives of these people who could very well be the friends and family of my Rohingya friends in Thailand. And all I can do is just change the grammatical errors in this report.

Suddenly, all of those news reports seemed to attack me personally. The more death reports I read, the more I felt as though I was mourning the loss of a close friend, over and over again. And it’s happening as I write this. There’s nothing I can do about it, and that’s what scares me. I can’t handle the feeling of not being in control and letting these things happen. Genocide is happening and I have never before felt more emotionally involved. This is happening to my friends and their family members.

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I don’t know why exactly I decided to write about this. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to sleep and it’s all I feel I can do right now. I wish I could do so much more. Right now, all I can do is spread awareness of this current genocide that is happening against the people I love and miss so much.

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If this blog makes you decide to take an extra minute to thoroughly read those news alerts about the Rohingya, then I’m happy to have helped with that. These aren’t just news alerts we should scroll through within 30 seconds of skimming the title. Save all the article skimming for the updates on the Kardashians. That’s when skimming is necessary. But crimes against humanity in Myanmar are real events that are happening right now. As unpleasant as it is, we need to address these issues and stay up-to-date with the events. Genocide is real. It’s happening today, on November 27th, 2016.

“Don’t Forget Us.”

Asia, English, English Teacher, ESL, Gap Year, Students, Thailand, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

“Teacher Sophie! Teacher Sophie! Come, come, come!”

My student rushes into the office, urgently motioning towards the door. “Let’s go!” he says.

When I get up to follow him out the door, I start to hear music from the outside. “Please come with me,” he says as he ushers me towards the dining hall.

As I approach, I see every single one of my students seated, each holding beautifully wrapped presents decorated with flowers and letters and all sorts of “Made in Myanmar”-like decorations.

I look around the room to see the walls completely decorated with countless posters, which the students must have spent hours working on. One of the posters included a drawing of “Teacher Sophie” with her hair in braids and ukulele in hand, surrounded by students. Classic.

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Everywhere I looked, I saw different posters drawn by my students. Each one was unique, but they each had a similar message.

“Don’t forget me.”                    “Don’t forget us.”                    “Don’t forget Thailand.”

 

As I enter the area, the students start to cheer. One of my students pulls up a chair for me in the front of the room, reaches for a letter in his back pocket, and starts to read it. The whole crowd becomes silent as he reads it aloud.

It was the most beautifully written letter. I had no words to say.  A couple weeks before, I remember he approached me and said, “Teacher, I wrote a goodbye letter for you. I know you will cry.”

So at the end of each sentence, he would look up and watch me closely, waiting for me to cry. He just wanted the satisfaction of saying that he made Teacher Sophie cry. And he succeeded.

He finishes the letter with the words, “Don’t worry, we be happy. I wish you to be always happy,” then quickly shoves the letter back into his pocket.

Several others came up and read their letters to me. One of my top students comes up and begins to stutter. I ask him what’s wrong because he is normally the class clown; the one filled with confidence and able to steal the show. This is the first time his goofy grin was wiped off his face. He timidly pulls me close and whispers in my ear, “Teacher, I cannot speak. I am very sad. I don’t know what to say.” He looks me in the eyes for a brief moment, then walks away without looking back.

Several more students along with teachers came up to appreciate and acknowledge the work I did at the school. Every person was genuine and every word spoken meant everything to me. Just as we were about to finish up, I looked towards the back of the room to see something I never anticipated.

Four of my students who dropped out of school to work were standing there with gifts. These kids work insane amount of hours at their jobs and rarely receive days off of work. They’re lucky enough to get 1 day off a month. And they all took the day off just to say goodbye to me. They came up to me and we embraced in a group hug. One of the boys takes the microphone in front of everyone and delivers the most impressive speech. A speech I couldn’t even imagine him saying just one year ago.

“Thank you, Sophie, for everything you did for me. You helped me improve my English for my work. Because of you, I have a good job and can make money for my family. Because of you, I can have hope for a future. We all thank you very much for everything you have done. Please don’t forget us when you go back to America. Please come back to us soon. We love you and we miss you.”

As if it wasn’t hard enough to try and stay calm and collected after that, my student runs up and sets up a laptop.

“Teacher, I made a slideshow for you! So you will never forget us!”

 

As the slideshow pulls up, I realize that he included every single song that was special between us (including the famous “Let It Goooooooo!”). It was adorable. As the slideshow played, the students lined up one by one to give me their gifts. I was (quite literally) drowning in a sea of perpetual gift-giving students. I had no place to move or to put the gifts, there were so many.

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How in the world am I supposed to fit these gifts into my backpack and then travel across Southeast Asia?

Ah. English teacher problems.

As they gave their gifts, they left one-by-one. The remaining students were the oldest ones, the students I bonded with the most.

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They approached me with tears in their eyes. I realized this is probably the last time I will ever see them again. So I decided to tell them everything. I told them about my depression in America, how I had come to Thailand because I was discouraged and lost. I told them how they showed me a new world; opened my eyes to a different perspective that I never anticipated I would see.

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Now there’s no going back. Thanks to them, I have hope for a future filled with more incredible friendships, endless laughter, and opportunities to make a difference. I just needed someone to show me the world. And they did that for me.

This was the day when it finally hit me. My time is over. I’m finished. I’m leaving the community that warmly welcomed the Scandinavian-ly white American drama queen into their lives. They introduced me to fish paste, longyis (traditional Myanmar skirts), and internet fame. They showed me a whole new side of the world that I never thought I would see. They redefined the meaning of kindness and hospitality, welcoming me into their “Big Fat [Burmese] Family.”

 

It’s pretty difficult for me to describe just how unique and unpredictable these past 16 months have been for me. I guess all I can say is that you had to be there.

Right before he left the classroom, my student, who was the initial one to read his letter to me, pulls me aside and slips a piece of paper in my hand. He says to me, “You can’t read it now. Only when you are back in America. Promise you won’t read it before, OK?”

I kept that piece of paper with me for the next 3 months while traveling through Southeast Asia. I waited for 3 months to open up that letter. Keeping it in my ukulele case, I saw it every time I took my ukulele out to play. It was absolute torture not opening it earlier, but I kept reminding myself about the promise I made to him.

When I finally arrived in Los Angeles, I opened up the piece of paper. I was so relieved when I found out what it was. It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about and I was finally able to see it again.

It was the same letter that he read aloud at school that day.

“Don’t worry, we be happy. I wish you to be always happy.”

From the dozens of letters I received when leaving, I realized that the one I was holding in my hands was the first and last letter I ever read from my students. What a beautiful realization to have. And what an absolutely perfect way to end this chapter in my life.

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“Don’t forget us, Teacher.”

 

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Uncategorized

As an English teacher, you’re constantly put into situations where you need to improvise and adapt. No matter how much you prepare for your lessons, you’ll realize quickly that you just have to use what you have (which, in my case, isn’t much) and go with the flow. The first day I ever attempted to teach (what we now call) “Rohinglish Class,” I was at a loss of what to do. With 22 wide-eyed, smiling children staring at me in a circle, I quickly had to think of a way to engage these kids. I picked up my ukulele, played the only 3 chords I know, and it magically worked out to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

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Perfect! This song is simple, catchy, and the kids can learn it quickly! As soon as I started singing it, the kids picked it up. They started clapping, jumping, dancing, and singing. When I explained to them what “don’t worry, be happy” means, I knew they understood. They began to use it in everyday scenarios.

Music creates a powerful connection between people; I didn’t know just how powerful until I met these Rohingya kids. Not a single day has gone by without having a student sing, “don’t worry, be happy” to me. If I’m looking stressed, “Teacher, don’t worry. Be happy!” If their friend is crying, “Hey, don’t worry. Be happy!” Even when nothing is wrong, “I am fine! Don’t worry, be happy!”

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When I enter the shelter with my ukulele, the kids immediately chase my motorbike and pick up broken pieces of wood to imitate a ukulele, singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”  They don’t even let me get off my motorbike before they erupt into chorus.

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Singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” during our outing at the beach.

I was even lucky enough to find a shirt at a local market that says “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” When I wore it to the shelter, the kids screamed and yelled, “Oh Teacher! Shirt amazing! Don’t worry! Be happy!”

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The best 50 baht I ever spent on a shirt.

When I took a couple volunteers to the shelter to teach the women and children, we circled up and started things off by singing “our favorite song” (you can guess what song that is). One of the volunteers came up to me afterwards and told me that watching the refugees sing that song was so powerful. These women and children are so resilient. They’re singing about not worrying and being happy when they have lost everything. They have been separated from their siblings, parents, and loved ones. They were promised to meet their family members in Malaysia, but ended up in Thailand, unable to make it there. They were exiled from their own country and forbidden to go to school or receive any basic medical assistance. In fact, some leaders of their country have even been bold enough to say that the “Rohingya don’t exist” (ABC).

Can you imagine being told that you and your people don’t even exist?

They have absolutely nothing. And yet they sing as though they have everything. When I sing with them, I feel like I have everything. In those moments, I’m perfectly content. I never worry. I’m happy.

I don’t teach them English during my free time because I feel sorry for them…I teach them English because I see incredible potential in them. These people have overcome obstacles that I can barely imagine. They are learning English so quickly and are aching to learn more. When I’m with them, I feel their love and support. Every day I look forward to pulling up to the shelter on my motorbike and watching the children chase me and the women wave at me, yelling, “Hello, Teacher!”

It’s difficult to put into words just how much of an impact these people have made on me. When I initially entered the shelter, I saw so much pain, hopelessness, and loss. Now when I enter the shelter, I see glimpses of joy, motivation, and hope. They finally have found their hope; their “don’t worry, be happy” niche. Watching these people change has changed me. When I’m sitting at the shelter, I never feel lonely. The women enjoy dressing me like a Rohingya woman and teasing my “Rohinglish” accent (as I attempt to learn their language). The kids enjoy being kids around me, getting into all sorts of trouble and making me laugh until I cry.

They’ve taught me so many things, but most of all, they’ve taught me the true meaning of “don’t worry, be happy.” The thought of leaving them tears me apart. I can’t imagine my life without them. I know we won’t be together forever, but it breaks my heart that I have to be the one to leave.

Since I’ve moved a fair amount of times during my childhood, I’m one who is pretty familiar with goodbyes. I try to close myself off emotionally from most of my friends. I’m pretty good at becoming close with people, but not close enough where leaving them would break me apart. I don’t like to open myself up to people. Being vulnerable is not my forte.

This is the first time I have ever felt true, raw emotion. I don’t know what it is about them, but something powerful has struck me, making it seem nearly impossible to leave. I have opened myself up to them, more than I have ever opened up before. Even though we barely speak the same language, I feel closer to these kids than anyone else I’ve ever met.

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I’ve learned so much from them; that’s something that I’ll keep forever.

With just 22 more days left in Khao Lak (yes, the Rohingya kids have been keeping a countdown calendar for my departure date. That makes it so much worse to leave), I’m still trying to accept the fact that this chapter in my life is coming to an end.

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22 more days left in beautiful Khao Lak.

Of course, my work with Rohingya refugees has not come to an end; in fact, let’s hope this is just the beginning. I may or may not see these people again. They are supposed to resettle in America, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. Whether I see them again or not, I am grateful to have spent time with them.

How lucky I am to listen to a song like, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and think back on such a powerful time in my life; the time when my life was changed. I think this song played a huge part in that experience.

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