A decade ago, Hser May and her family were confined to a refugee camp in Eastern Thailand. Her family had barely escaped with their lives, chased across the border by murderous army soldiers.
Several years ago, and after many years of confinement, her battered family made it to America.
Hser was enrolled in the public schools where she was hospitalized with a concussion after trying to save a terrified refugee friend from a gang terrorizing her on a city bus.
(Down below, a new idea, an early preview of the Emergency Bishop Maginn Pandemic Safety Wish List. It will be officially launched Monday, this is a chance for the people who can’t get to help in time, as many of you have asked how to contribute. Bless all of you.)
Her parents got her to Bishop Maginn. There, it was finally safe for her to grow, learn English and accept the love she was given.
Her story just goes straight up from there.
She loves her school, loves Ameria, and especially loves learning to talk about her feelings and emotions, something she was never allowed to do.
She is working hard to plan her future and live a meaningful life and help her parents find the safety she feels. She is safe for the first time in her life.
Friday, I spent several hours with Hser because I wanted to write about her capture and the immense good that this school has done for and so many others, including her brother, who was muffled in the woods to keep the soldiers from killing him, and who was just named soccer coach at Bishop Maginn.
I love this story so much. It’s like an energy drink for the soul.
And I need to thank the Army of Good couple who have become Hser’s mentors and help her and watch over her and make sure she has what she needs.
They have generously decided to pay for her tuitions.
Two weeks ago, Hser Nay finished her first STEP classes at a three-week counseling center for gifted students at the University Of Albany.
She is s studying engineering and technology and will spend the next two summers there preparing for college.
She is a miracle, one that Bishop Maginn and her devoted teacher and brave parents made possible.
In a school of remarkable stories, Hser Nay stands out. There is much good in the world,
Amazing and remarkable are the two words her teachers and principal use to describe her. They run out of superlatives when talking about her.
She is one of the most popular and conscientious students in the school, say the teachers, and in a school with remarkable students, her teachers say she still stands out.
She tells me that getting to Bishop Maginn saved her life, and almost certainly, the chance for college.
I went to Albany to talk to her and I loved every moment of our two-hour interview. It just lifts me up to the moon to talk to someone like Hser, it gives me hope for all the world.
Talking to Hser, feeling her warmth and generosity of spirit, and dedication to a good and meaningful life leaves one almost trembling with hope.
If she can overcome what she overcame, very few of us have reason to doubt our own possibilities.
When Hser Nay was several years old, she and her brother and parents barely escaped Myanmar with their lives.
It was during one of the Karen genocides when army soldiers hunted Karen Christians, terrorizing them, shooting them on-site, burning their villages, slaughtering anyone they could find, killing them on sight.
Hundreds of thousands of Karen people died in those killings, a stain on humanity.
She and her family fled to Thailand through the woods, chased by soldiers all the way. At night, they held bandanas over her brother Hser We Thoe’s mouth so he wouldn’t cry out in the dark.
Discovery was almost certain torture and death. Their lives were a constant terror.
The family made it to a refugee camp in Thailand where UN trucks brought food every other week – most of the time. The main diet was always rice.
Thai soldiers patrolled the camp night and day threatening anyone who dared to go out.
She spent seven years in the camps, hiding out from Myanmar spies trying to find out who was in the camp so they could steal their land and property back home and hunt down their families.
They lost everything, every penny, everything they had owned.
Her family left loved ones behind, they worry about them every day.
In 2020, her family emigrated to the United States, just before the Trump administration halted almost all immigration into the United States.
Hser was shy and quiet and spoke little English. She was overwhelmed by her Albany Public Middle school with thousands of students.
One of her closest friends was a terrified fellow Myanmar refugee who was small and traumatized by the refugee camps.
She often burst into tears because she spoke little English and was targeted by other students at the start of the government’s anti-immigrant hate campaign.
“Weak refugee children were and are targets,” she says.
Suddenly, it was open season on these children. One boy from Myanmar had his hair set on fire.
On a bus home from school her friend, who was being taunted and struck, started crying and a dozen students crowded around her, pushing and yelling.
“I couldn’t watch them do that,” she said and stepped forward to protect her friend.
She remembers being pushed into a metal pole, and knocked unconscious. Her next memory was waking up in a hospital bed, being treated for a severe concussion.
Her mother, an aide in a nursing home, and her father, now a handyman who fixes engines, got her to Bishop Maginn.
There, she met Sue Silverstein, who she calls “my comfort teacher.” She went to Sue whenever she was in trouble, and Sue helped her every single time. Sue, I have learned is a powerful force all of her own, and she has the heart of a dinosaur.
For the first time in her life, Hser says, she felt safe enough to learn and was in a place that wanted to teach.
For the first time in her life, she stopped being afraid, and “I began to see a future for myself.” She is very worried about her parents and the toll the genocide has taken on them.
She says she won’t go away to college, she wants to stay nearby them.
Despite the hostility and hardship so many of these refugee children have faced, they love America and its promise.
And for the first time, the teachers had enough time to help her learn English. When I first interviewed her last year, she could barely speak English.
Now, she speaks it fluently and confidently.
It hasn’t been simple. The pandemic meant Hser had to learn from a computer at home. It was very difficult for the refugee students to keep up with the language classes being spoken online and be cut off from their teachers.
She says Sue Silverstein stayed close.
Sue and the other teachers took extra time to meet with her virtually and help her learn.
In the meantime, she started making friends who love music, as she does. She says she loves K-pop (short for Korean popular music, popularized by a series of boy bands).
“Once she got here,” says Sue, “she just blossomed into a happy, smiling, outgoing and confident child.
At the STEP program, they helped her prepare for the SATs. Sue says there is no doubt that she is heading for college.
In the refugee world, the parents have enormous influence in deciding what their children should study, and the children try to honor that.
Hser says her parents want her to be a doctor or lawyer.
“But I don’t see myself being a doctor,” she said, independence she might not have dared to show a few years ago.
“Right now, I want to study art or theater. At STEP I’ve signed up to study engineering or technology, so I’m still not sure.
At Bishop Maginn, she says “I entered a world I didn’t know existed, not in the camps, not in the public schools.
The teaches all made time for me, the classes were smaller, the other students welcomed me and made me feel at home.”
She took a breath and added, “I never once felt danger here.”
Back home in Myanmar, the army has taken power again and jailed the country’s elected leaders.
It is difficult to communicate with her cousins and uncle, she says, because the army can trace where cell phones are going in five seconds or less, and they jail or kill anyone caught talking to people in the United States.
The terror in Myanmar and the danger to members of their family has made her father ill, she says, he worries about his brother all of the time but doesn’t dare to try to contact him to find out if he is all right.
Letters are intercepted and destroyed, recipients are jailed or killed.
She says she is still shocked by the intensity of American culture.
In Myanmar or Thailand, she said, “children never show any emotion or talk about how they feel.
Here all the children talk about how they feel all the time. It takes some getting used to.”
Hser said she talked to a counselor who taught her how to speak about her emotions and talk about her feelings. She says she is learning how to do it. “I never talked to anybody about my feelings, she said, never.”
Sue Silverstein says Hser Nay has overcome about every obstacle a student can overcome, and her confidence is growing every day.
She is ready for college, she says, and seems headed towards the University of Albany, a school that courts gifted refugee children and has close ties to Bishop Maginn.
“She’s an amazing person,” says Principal Mike Tolan. “She will do so well in this world.”
I plan on writing about Hser Nay every year about this time for as long as she will let me.
After the interview, I asked Hser and Sue what gift we might make to her to help her on this amazing journey.
Hser said she couldn’t ask for anything – I expected this, so Sue and I decided I should get her an IPad, something she would need and could use all the way into college.
Her eyes widened and she gulped out a yes, and a nod, she said that would be a miracle for her.
I am deeply touched by this small school, an island in the midst of chaos, violence, neglect, and confusion.
They believe in miracles and perform them often.
I thank them for letting me in to do this work, along with the equally amazing Army Of Good.
I love helping refugee children have some miracles. Miracles are the American Way.
(P.S. Yes, the necklaces in the photo were made by the Amish girls.)
In the emerging Delta Variant Crisist, Bishop Maginn High School needs some help.
A lot of people have messaged me expressing regret and some frustration that the Bishop Maginn High School Wish Lists sell out before they have a chance to contribute.
This time, I’m trying something new, an early look.
A new Bishop Maginn High School Emergency Pandemic Safety Wish List is going up officially tomorrow on this blog. I’m posting it here first so more people can have a chance to participate. It feels good to help.
The school has been advised by health authorities to require teachers and students to wear masks and take other safety precautions.
We helped the school be safe last year and the NY Department of Health declared Bishop Maginn the safest school in Albany. They got staff and students through the worst year of the pandemic safely.
Many of the items we purchased last year can still be used. But the school needs fresh supplies. This is an inexpensive list.
We are being asked to help again in a more modest way – six items ranging from examination gloves to disposable face masks to face shields and Lysol disinfectant wipes. The items range from $4.16 to $14.99, it is modest but urgently needed last. I hope we can help the school to be safe again during what seems to be another chapter in this difficult crisis.
You can get an early look and contribute directly to the page here or if you don’t wish to purchase things online, you can send a donation to me and I’ll buy the items on your behalf.