Times Union article
June 26, 2016
At 17 years old, Ar Kee has lived two very different lives.
In the first, he bathed in polluted rivers on the Thailand-Burma border and collected leaves for his family to thatch into a roof. He stalked the woods for bamboo shoots and baby ferns to eat with dinner, while the adults hunted birds and fish.
In the other, he lived in a home with electricity and running water. He walked outside without worrying about land mines, and slept without fear of bombs and fire. He went to a school that gave him a diploma, and got into a college that would give him opportunity.
That second life was made possible thanks to the United Nations’ refugee resettlement programs, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the city of Albany and the Albany City School District. On Sunday, Kee joined 480 of his peers to become an Albany High graduate, ready for a new chapter in an already eventful life.
“The city of Albany has been very, very supportive and I’m very glad, because seriously without them I would not be able to be here,” Kee said. “I listened to the adults. They guided me. They told me if you want a future here, you need an education. So I’m very humbled and thankful.”
Like a number of refugees and immigrants who’ve come to the school district in recent years, Kee’s family are members of the ethnic Karen minority who fled abuse and persecution in Burma for a better life. If they had stayed at Mae La, a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand, the family’s four children would have had little chance at a decent education, job or life.
Kee was 9 years old when his family was resettled in Albany. It was 2008, and the district had established English-as-a-second-language classes and afterschool programs to accommodate the growing number of immigrants and refugees arriving in the capital. In the past decade, the district has seen its English language learner population surge from roughly 300 students to nearly 1,000. That number is only expected to grow, as the city prepares to take in refugees fleeing civil war, poverty and terrorism in Syria.
“It was difficult at first,” Kee said. “The language was definitely a barrier. I did not know any word in English except for ‘thank you’ and ‘hello,’ so it was very hard for me to transition to the way of life. But I think because I was younger, I had more time to grow and get used to it. For refugees who make this transition when they’re older, it’s going to be hard.”
His older brother, who was in middle school when the family moved, eventually dropped out for this reason. Kee is the first in his family to earn a high school diploma. And his was certainly earned.
After gaining command of the language, Kee’s grades proved enough to get him into the school’s International Baccalaureate Program — an international education program recognized worldwide for its rigorous academic, social and emotional expectations. In addition to completing self-guided research projects and additional assessments, Kee was expected to pursue creativity, activity and service as part of the program. So he began taking dance, participating in theater and tutoring students after school.
Kee is just one of six Albany High students who graduated Sunday as an International Baccalaureate candidate. He was accepted into the University of Buffalo, where he will pursue a pre-med track with hopes of eventually becoming a doctor or some other medical professional.
The field was not a random choice for Kee, who never forgot where he came from.
“Someday, I want to use the opportunity I have in America to go back to the refugee camp and help those people out,” he said. “I can bring equipment. I can teach them how to be healthy and to heal in dirty conditions. I can show them how to protect against virus and diseases. Health care is not very well there, but maybe I can help.”
To learn more about the work USCRI Albany is doing click here
Photo Credit: Times Union