Immigrant students helping others like them

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – Inside the tiny Benson apartment, in a kitchen filled with boxes of donations, stood two teenagers washing dishes.

Side by side, the pair of immigrants – a girl from Mexico, a boy from Thailand – worked through the piles of plates, mugs, glasses and silverware. They washed, they dried and they put them into once-empty cabinets while their friends in a unique high school club ran the vacuum, filled the fridge with fresh cabbage and made signs that said “Welcome.”

The Omaha Northwest Thrive Club was preparing Apartment 11 for a refugee family due in that night, the Omaha World-Herald ( ) reported.

The setup work was just part of a larger commitment the students, nearly all of them foreign-born, are making to the newcomers. And it is a measure of how far the students have come since their own arrivals to America.

The Northwest students know all too well the challenges ahead: adjusting to a sometimes-frigid climate, a new language and even creature comforts like a bed.

“I wasn’t used to a mattress at all,” recalled 19-year-old Hei Blut Htoo, an Omaha Northwest senior, about his first night in America seven years ago. “I slept on the floor. The carpet was warm and soft.”

Hei Blut Htoo is president of his school’s Thrive Club, an after-school group at five Omaha public high schools. The club is aimed at migrant students who are either new to Omaha or who work or have parents working in an agricultural field such as meatpacking. Generally such students are from other countries, many of them refugees who had come from meager conditions without a lot of modern conveniences or consistent schooling.

Once they get to America, the learning curve is steep. Many refugee students, insecure about their broken English, tend to clam up in the classroom and not get involved in activities where they could make friends and build stronger school connections.

That’s where Thrive comes in. The club meets weekly and uses a leadership curriculum that teaches students about character traits and service and encourages them to branch out beyond their ethnic groups. The four-year-old club also encourages students to do more than merely survive – they are pushed to thrive. A number of former club members are now in college.

Club participation requires a service project, and past projects have involved generic acts of kindness, like picking up litter. This year, the Northwest Thrive Club wanted to do something more personal.

So the club teamed up with Lutheran Family Services, a refugee resettlement agency, and spent a few days helping transform bleak, empty Apartment 11 into a warm, welcoming home – with help from an Omaha firefighter who had collected furniture, hauled it in and set it up.

Some students went grocery shopping, choosing the fresh, familiar fruits and vegetables that the incoming family from a Thai refugee camp would appreciate. Some went to Family Dollar to buy new towels and a shower curtain.

Others, like Hei Blut Htoo and Fernanda Compean, unpacked boxes. Each had a unique immigrant story.

Hei Blut Htoo’s parents, members of a persecuted ethnic minority in Burma called the Karen, had fled to Thailand. Hei Blut Htoo was born in a Thai refugee camp. He lived in a bamboo hut with no electricity, though he could go to a common area to watch American movies. Schooling was spotty. Fire was a constant risk: The refugee camp where he was born burned down, and his family had to go to a different camp.

When his family landed in Houston, a sponsor drove them to an apartment. What Hei Blut Htoo remembers is how hungry he was. After two days of travel, he hadn’t had any rice and he really, really, really wanted rice. Instead, waiting for him in America was a strange meal: a box of Walmart chicken.

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Immigrant students helping others like them
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