Like many refugee youth, Panaporn’s schooling was interrupted multiple times. But with hard work, dedication, and some help from RefugeeOne’s Youth Program, Panaporn has been able to excel in her education and build a strong foundation for her future.
Panaporn was born in Thailand. Before she was born, her family had fled conflict in Burma/Myanmar between the government and ethnic-based groups. After 13 years of living in Thailand, Panaporn relocated to a refugee camp on the border, leading to a wave of changes in her life. Panaporn had spent all of her young life living in Thailand with Thai people. She was now living with refugees from Burma, a country she only knew about through stories from her elders. She had to make new friends, learn a new culture, and speak a new language.
Because of this change, Panaporn had to start afresh in school. So at 13, she entered 3rd grade. She says, “I was taller than everyone in the class.” However, Panaporn progressed through school quickly, eventually skipping ahead to 9th grade.
After working so hard to catch up to her peers in school, Panaporn again had to interrupt her education. Her father lost his job, and with her mother ill at home, Panaporn had little choice but to drop out of school and begin working as a teacher and interpreter in order to help support her sick mother and younger brother.
When Panaporn was 15, her family was resettled to Chicago in search of greater opportunities, but once again uprooting her life and her education. She had to start all over for a second time – making new friends, learning a new culture, and speaking a new language. But this time, Panaporn had the support of RefugeeOne’s Youth Program. RefugeeOne helped Panaporn to enroll in school, “catch up” to the level of her American peers, engage with other refugees who shared similar stories, and apply for financial aid. Thanks to her hard work, along with the support of RefugeeOne’s Youth Program, Panaporn recently graduated high school and is excited to attend Northeastern Illinois University in the fall.
Panaporn is proud to be the first member of her family to attend college. Her goal is to become a social worker one day so that she can help other refugees like herself. She says, “I feel like they (refugees) are my brothers or sisters… I can feel how hurt they are so I want to help them.”
Thanks to donors, RefugeeOne’s Youth Program is able to support many refugee youth like Panaporn. Through after-school tutoring and mentoring programs, along with parent education and school advocacy, RefugeeOne supports over 200 youth per year as they strive to learn English and succeed in a new educational system and culture.
Despite Panaporn’s many life changes, one thing that has remained consistent is her passion for music. Panaporn is a talented singer/songwriter who has written and performed songs in many languages. Click the link below to hear her beautiful performance at RefugeeOne’s gala.
Said and his wife Hodan are from Somalia, a society made up of hundreds of different clans. They enjoyed relative peace in their country after British and Italian troops withdrew and created the Somali Republic. Then civil war broke out in 1991, splitting the country along clan lines. Both Said and Hodan, who did not yet know each other, were trapped in strongholds of rival clans.
As violence increased and hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed, Said and Hodan became increasingly fearful for their lives. They knew their families’ lives were at risk based simply on the clan they were born into. Each made their way into the neighboring country of Djibouti, though Hodan was forced to say goodbye to her daughter in Somalia. It was in a Djibouti refugee camp that Said and Hodan met and eventually married.
As a couple, they began a new life in Djibouti, working hard at low-wage jobs, restricted to a small area of the city, and unable to ever become citizens. Later, they started a family. They didn’t want their plight to be their children’s fate, so when they learned refugee children could never enroll in school they had no choice but to apply to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for relocation to a third country. After 17 years in Djibouti, they were selected to be resettled in the U.S.
They arrived in Chicago in November 2012. Although the month was warm by Chicago standards, to the family of six sub-Saharan Africans, it was bitterly cold. Said arrived dressed in a t-shirt. “I froze,” he said.
They vividly remember the – literally – warm welcome they received from RefugeeOne. Their case manager was at the airport with winter coats, gloves and hats. He drove them to their apartment which Hodan recalls as being “huge”; her fear was they were going to be crowded into a very small living space. Both parents smiled as they remembered arriving at the apartment and finding a warm meal ready for them after all the hours on the plane and passing through customs.
It was here that they faced their first challenges as refugees. In Djibouti, there are very few multi-level buildings and these were restricted to the wealthiest parts of the city. They needed to learn to work the elevator, the gas oven, the hot and cold running water and the dishwasher.
Their neighborhood, too, was strange. “It was a totally new mix of people we’d never seen before,” said Hodan. While they were familiar with Americans and Europeans, they had never lived alongside Asians, Hispanics or “men with long hair, ponytails, and braids.”
As they settled in, they were brought to the RefugeeOne office where they started English classes, enrolled in RefugeeOne’s Employment program, and accessed other in-house services to help the entire family adjust to life in the U.S. Hodan’s language skills, along with her work experience in Djibouti, led to her first job cleaning hotel rooms and brought an important early income for the family. RefugeeOne helped Said find work as a dishwasher soon after. Their children were enrolled in the RefugeeOne Youth Program, participating in the after-school program and receiving home tutoring.
“I want to say ‘thank you’ to the Americans who assisted us and thank you to the American government for bringing us here,” said Said. “I hope to buy our own home and send all my children to university.” Hodan added, “When we become citizens, I also want ask the United States to help my daughter in Somalia come to Chicago and live with our family.” The biggest dream for the future was voiced by their oldest girl, Muna. “I don’t want to be a doctor or teacher when I grow up. I want to work at RefugeeOne and help new refugee families in Chicago.”