What does it take to come to the United States? For three Logansport High School teenagers, they had to evade violent gangs and soldiers, endure poor conditions and suffer lack of food.
Of the 1,568 English language learners in Logansport Community School Corp., just 20 percent of the students were born outside of the United States. They come from about 15 countries around the world — Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Thailand, to name a few.
'Let's just go to America'
As a 9-year-old, Wah Wah So came to the U.S. after growing up in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Her family in 1997 fled the southeast Asian country, formerly called Burma, which had been ravaged by a civil war for decades. She was born there a few years later.
Her parents spent several days walking through the forest, trying to hide from soldiers and make it safely to the camp. Although Wah Wah, 18, never made the trek, she heard stories of soldiers finding and killing people and families having to leave their loved ones behind if they died.
And once they made it to the camp, she said they had to build their homes out of bamboo and find a spot to live among the thousands of people in the camp. Each family there received at least 1 kilogram of food per person, such as oil, rice and beans. If someone wanted to work in the fields, they might make the equivalent of about $2 for a day's work picking crops, she said.
Once a family lives in the camps for more than 10 years, Wah Wah said they get a chance to apply for resettlement in another country. Her family chose the U.S., similar to many refugees. She said they heard about freedom in the U.S. and that a person can work at some jobs without knowing English.
“‘Let’s just go to America. Let’s just go to America,’” she said, quoting many people in her camp. “They don’t say, ‘Let’s go to Europe. Let’s go to England.”
Wah Wah's family first moved to California to live with relatives, but they decided to leave because of the expensive housing costs and difficult job market. They had some family in Fort Wayne, and her dad got a job at Tyson Fresh Meats. Shortly after, they moved to Logansport as the first Karen family in town — one of the many ethnic groups of Myanmar.
As the oldest kid in her family, Wah Wah said she had to quickly take on the role of translating for her parents and making sure they go to appointments and find their way in town. That meant she had to learn English right from the start, which she said took a while to master.
She would meet with an instructional aide almost every day in elementary school in order to help her read and understand English. Now, school administrators ask Wah Wah to translate whenever a Karen refugee family comes to Logansport.
The LHS senior plans to attend Indiana University Kokomo and study nursing. She already works as a certified nursing assistant, a license she earned as a junior at the Century Career Center.
"I want to go back [to the camp] and teach the basics of health," Wah Wah said. "Over there, it's very dirty and people die from malaria. So I feel like it's a big, big thing."
Cooking, working at age 11
When Greely Moo, 17, traveled to a refugee camp outside of Myanmar as a young child, her parents carried her in a basket for the almost weeklong trip. They made it there safely, but her life quickly changed from being a kid to having responsibilities most adults have.
At night, Greely said she had to be cautious when sleeping, since some people would burn down bamboo houses in the camp.
Greely's father died in the refugee camp, and her mom remarried shortly after and she stayed with her new husband in the camp. So, at age 11, Greely had to take care of her two younger brothers and older teenage brother as the "mom." She took care of the home and had to work in the fields picking pepper all day long to make the little money needed to buy and cook food.
When she was 13, her family came to the U.S. and settled as refugees.
Fleeing the gangs of El Salvador
Kirian Castillo and her brother and sister came to the U.S. because they didn't feel safe. Gangs have overrun their home country of El Salvador, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Thousands of teenagers there have joined violent gangs.
"You either join or you die," Kirian, 17, said through a translator.
Gangs recruit teenagers in and out of school, and if a kid doesn't want to join, Kirian said, they'll hunt the teenager down and threaten to kill their family. The country also doesn't have many job opportunities, she said. The only jobs require a high school diploma, but gang members are selling drugs in schools.
That's why many kids are coming to the U.S. LCSC has 37 students from El Salvador. Kirian and her brother were pressured to join gangs, and so they wanted to come to the U.S. to live with her father in Logansport.
A lot of parents leave El Salvador and come to the U.S. when their kids are young in order to work and send back money to support their children, who are living with relatives, she said. Kirian's dad came to the U.S. when she was 7 years old. But because of the growing violence, parents are wanting their kids to flee the country for a better life in the U.S.
“The criminal activity is a lot worse now," she said, "and they’re afraid that something might happen to their kids.”
Soon after Kirian came to Logansport with her younger sister — her brother came about a year later — and moved in with her father and stepmom, she found out she was about three months pregnant. She enrolled in school as a freshman and gave birth to her son later that year.
Kirian said she sees her son on the weekends, since she works and attends school. Her dad takes care of the 2-year-old boy during the day.
Now as a junior at LHS, Kirian said she not only feels safer living in the U.S., but she's seen her life take a complete turn, both economically and since she became a mother.
“There’s not people selling [me] drugs or getting [me] into violence or getting [my] family members. There’s no threats. There’s nothing.”
Kirian has refugee status in the U.S. because of the persecution and gang violence of El Salvador, as well as a work permit. Even though she's had to travel to Chicago several times a year to the Consulate General of El Salvador and fill out lots of paperwork along the way, she's on track to file for permanent residency next month. She also plans to be a cosmetologist after high school.
“It was worth it," she said.