“Ahhh! Teacher!! Helloooo!” Absolute chaos erupted the moment I swiped to the right of my incoming Viber call. I usually ignore anonymous Viber calls. Most of the time, it’s just another die-hard Burmese fan who’s trying to ask me if I have a “lover.” Yes, the struggles of being a Burmese popstar.
I had no idea who was on the other end of the phone, but after seeing my phone ringing constantly for 5 minutes, I figured I should probably pick up. A slow, pixelated video showed up on my screen. My heart jumped when I saw their faces appear. It was one of the Rohingya families from the refugee shelter in Thailand.
How in the world did they find my number? They must be calling me from the shelter. They were excitedly trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t understand amidst the simultaneous yelling of six people on the other end. When things finally settled down, I asked them what they were trying to tell me. “Teacher, America! America!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all the kids really talked about at the shelter, so this was nothing new. I figured they just wanted me to tell them about how America is, so I started speaking. Just then, I looked at the video and realized that one of the little boys was wearing a jacket. A snow jacket. That’s definitely not something you wear in Thailand.
“Yasin Zuhar, where are you right now?” I asked, hoping to hear the answer that I dreamed of, but knew I would never hear.
“Teacher! I’m in America!”
Suddenly everything stood still.
Then the whole family chimed in and yelled, “Yes, Teacher! In America! Right now!”
So it’s true. The impossible finally became possible. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I just started laughing uncontrollably. Then I started crying. I left this family in Thailand, thinking I would never see them again. The odds of them being relocated to the US out of the 65 million refugees in the world were incredibly slim. The UNHCR officers told me there was no chance I would see them again. It would take years for them to be resettled in the States. And here they are.
I asked them where they were in America.
Never heard of it. I checked the flights to Milwaukee — $38 roundtrip from Denver? Leaving the following week? Sold. I thought I left this family forever only to find that I’ve found them again…in the middle of nowhere…in Sheboygan of all places.
When I knocked on their front door, Yasin answered. He was one of the first Rohingya children I met in Thailand. He was wearing giant snow pants with a beanie and long-sleeved Adidas shirt. Already such an American.
When he saw me, his eyes lit up and he jumped into my arms. His sisters, brothers, and mother joined and within minutes, we were all reunited.
There were two things I noticed about seeing them for the first time since Thailand. First, their English had improved tremendously. No surprise there. It was amazing to see the progress they’d made since I first met them as shy, fresh-off-the-boat refugees in Thailand.
They could barely speak two words of English and now they are telling me about their new school, their American friends, and how cold snow is on their feet when they try to run outside without their boots.
The second thing was the sheer gratitude they showed me. They were so shocked that I would actually come visit them. They called every family member they could contact…this included the mother’s eleven siblings, first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, mother’s sister’s husband’s distant relatives, etc. Contacting all of the relatives took roughly the entire trip’s duration, which spanned over a couple of days. I was shocked at how they were able to stay in contact with so many friends and family, despite their transient lifestyle.
I guess the only thing that they noticed about me was the fact that I had lost some weight since I last saw them. “Oh no, Teacher! Very small! Not good!” So they decided to make it their mission to provide me with food at all hours of the day and night. When I say all hours, I mean all hours. They woke me up at 2:00am and prepared a fully cooked meal for me (after giving me 3 cups of instant coffee to stay awake for the meal). Any time I would finish something, they would prepare a new meal. Not just a snack. A homecooked meal. That was their way of showing their gratitude for me. Apparently they were trying to make up for the hours of English class I gave them in Thailand…in food.
It was a never-ending cycle of food on my plate; absolute heaven for a 15-year-old high school football player. Not so much for me. I reached a point where I wanted to cry because I was so full. So they saw my face and thought, “She must be hungry!” and whipped up some homemade green chicken curry.
They were so excited to show me to their favorite hangout spots, which included Walmart and McDonald’s. They were enamored by the fact that we could visit Walmart at 1:00am; so that’s exactly what we did. The children showed me how they can bike around town to get everywhere. They told me how they aren’t afraid of the police here. They took me door to door and introduced me to the other refugees in the area. They told their story to the neighbors and I instantly became the token English teacher. This also meant I was invited over to all of their homes for a home cooked meal. I felt as though I was in a foreign country…in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Towards the end, I sat the kids down and asked them a question I had been wondering for quite some time.
“Are you happy here?”
“Yes, Teacher! Very, very, very happy.”
After over a year of worrying and wondering how they are, it was such a relief to hear those words. Everything I dreamed for these kids is coming true. They are on a path to achieve their goals.
The best part is that I can be part of their journey. I can see these kids grow up. I get to be here to watch it all happen…and gain 10 pounds in the process.
I’ve spent most of my life moving around, so I’ve become fairly accustomed to saying goodbye. People come and go in certain chapters of your life. You may not see them ever again, but they were there for you during a time when you needed them. That’s what I’ve always thought and that’s how I’ve always lived. Very rarely does someone from my past come back into my life. I’m still trying to process that these friends who I thought I’d never see again have unexpectedly come back into my life.
And they’re not the only ones. I’ve discovered that more families from that shelter in Thailand have been relocated to the States. It’s my goal in the next couple of months to visit all of them. Teacher Sophie’s “Rohingya Reunions” shall commence all across the United States! I’m so excited to finally have them back in my life again. They’re here to stay and so am I. It’s moments like these when you realize just how truly beautiful and surprising life is.