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When We Were Home: Stories by young refugees living in Worcester

By Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

February 10, 2016
  • Hay Reh, a self-taught artist, created allof the artwork in 'When We Were Home.'
  • Illustration by Hay Reh
  • Illustration by Hay Reh
  • Illustration by Hay Reh
  • Illustration by Hay Reh
  • Illustration by Hay Reh
  • Illustration by Hay Reh

When Htoo Kolo Wah was a young boy living in a U.N. refugee camp outside of Burma, he watched his parents struggle to feed their family and wondered how, as an adult, he would ever be able to provide for his own. Hoping for a miracle, he dreamed of a future as an engineer. Now, as a refugee living in Worcester, he’s learned to stand on his own and is in his freshman year at UMass Dartmouth, studying mechanical engineering.

“My family came to the United States to achieve a better life and live independently,” Wah writes in a new storybook, When We Were Home: A collection of memories from Burmese refugee youth. “Here everyone has to stand by themselves; nobody tells you what to do. It’s you! You must pursue your dream. When I was young in Mae Ra Moe camp, I always wanted to be an engineer. Now, here I have a chance to follow this dream, by going to a good college.”

The collection of memories, reflections and folk tales was coordinated by three School of Medicine students who are longstanding volunteers with the Worcester Refugee Assistance Project (WRAP). It includes stories from more than 15 young refugees who have resettled in the Worcester area. WRAP, which was co-founded by Meredith Walsh, MPH, RN (GSN ’13), while she was a master’s student, provides a wide range of assistance to help Burmese refugees attain self-reliance in their new home.

 

“I always go with my father to find honey in the forest. When we go up the mountains,
we could see through the Burmese side and we could see the soldiers’ houses.
I felt scared because the Burmese put mines, so if you step on it, you can lose your leg.
After we leave our village, the soldiers come and leave the mines there.
They put a wire across a path that explodes the bomb. When we come back to take things we forget,
sometimes we step on the mines.” 
Hay Reh

 “The idea for the storybook arose while we were driving back from Gillette Stadium, where we take the kids once a year to see a New England Revolution game,” said Mark Fusunyan, a third-year medical student and WRAP volunteer. “One of the youth spontaneously shared a story about his father’s past as a soldier battling the Burmese army and how he admired him. At the end of his story, he suggested that as a group, the WRAP youth might have stories worth recording in some form.”

  Third-year medical students Mark Fusunyan, Courtney Temple and Alyse Wheelock, pictured in front of an exhibit at the Lamar Soutter Library that showcases original artwork along with story excerpts from When We Were Home.
 

Third-year medical students Mark Fusunyan, Courtney Temple and Alyse Wheelock, pictured in front of an exhibit at the Lamar Soutter Library that showcases original artwork along with story excerpts from When We Were Home

In fall 2014, Fusunyan and fellow volunteers Courtney Temple and Alyse Wheelock applied for a grant from the Worcester Arts Council to collect and print a book of the refugees’ stories.

“As we sat down and talked to the kids, we found them to be almost overflowing with colorful and unique memories of life in both the refugee camps and the U.S.,” said Temple, who also serves as youth group coordinator and as a member of the WRAP board of directors.

“In the final realization of the project, we combined these impressions and recollections with artwork from one of the youth, Hay Reh,” said Wheelock. Reh is a self-taught artist, who at 19, has already created many paintings and sketches depicting his journey from the refugee camps to Worcester.

 

“After 4-5 months, things got better because we learn from mistakes.
We look at how other people do and we follow. It’s funny now but I can’t believe
some of the things that happened. We didn’t know detergent was for the clothes
so we just cooked it. I looked in the dictionary and I said to my father
that it has something to do with the clothes. But it looked like oil
so we just cooked the detergent with the vegetables.
Nga Reh 

 In addition to creating a beautiful book, they found meaning in simply telling their stories.

“A lot of the youth struggle with confidence in their ability to express themselves, so they’re cautious about opening up about their valued experiences and personal beliefs,” said Fusunyan. “I think the storybook process gave them a safe space to share their experiences, which they found to be fun and meaningful. When they saw the finished product, I think a lot of the youth felt excited and validated that their stories and artwork were remarkable enough to be worthy of a book.”

The book was unveiled to the WRAP community in a celebration that mirrored a cultural tradition—younger members of the community presented the book that they helped create to older members of the community. Copies of the book will also be donated to local libraries and other area organizations that serve refugee populations. An exhibit currently on display at the Lamar Soutter Library showcases original artwork from the book along with story excerpts.

 

“My school life is different from the refugee camp. All my teachers here are nice.
I also made lots of friends. They’re all nice to me with who I am. In the refugee camp,
people will be friends with me when I have money and delicious food to eat.
I met a lot of people here who help refugee people. I’m very grateful to them,
because my life is filled with excitements. I want to work hard in the future and now,
so one day I want to help people who need my help.”
Saw Meh

Speaking on behalf of his fellow volunteers, Fusunyan said, “As members of the medical school community, we are interested in sharing this collection with people who will be providing health care to the refugee community in Worcester. We hope that this book will give students and caregivers a window into the life experiences of some of the people they may encounter as patients.”

For more information about WRAP, visit its website. To learn more about the book or to inquire about obtaining a copy, send an email to Wrapyouthstorybook@gmail.com.

Related links on UMassMedNow:
GSN student helps refugees from Burma build lives in their new country
Empowering a community
Ice time for students and refugees