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Paw Lay’s journey of hope

March 15, 2013

Inside the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, the room is packed with people waving tiny American flags.

Those present represent the beautiful diversity of 15 countries and cultures, from Bulgaria to Sweden to India to Sudan, yet they hold one precious thing in common.

Today they become citizens of the United States of America.

Paw Lay Htoo is one of them. A refugee from Burma (also called Myanmar), Paw Lay was resettled to Des Moines six years ago with her family. In conflict for more than 50 years, violence has displaced over 800,000 people from Burma. Most found refuge for years in one of nine camps along the border of Thailand.

“For many elderly clients, it is extremely difficult to become a citizen,” said Molly Harrison, LSI ESL coordinator. “Most of them are dealing with vision, hearing and general health problems. Some have endured torture and malnutrition, which affects their learning abilities. Many of our elderly have had no schooling in their own country, so we often have to begin at a very basic level in our English classes. To get to the point where they can pass a citizenship test is a great achievement for them.”

LSI’s English as a Second Language (ESL) classes help prepare students for citizenship classes, where they study for a four-part test that covers oral conversation, reading, writing and knowing the answers to 100 questions about U.S. history, geography and historical citizens.

It took Paw Lay four years of studying, at both Des Moines Area Community College and LSI, to pass her citizenship exam.

“I want to be an American citizen because I have lived here six years,” she said. “I like the opportunity for freedom. Now I can vote!”

Today she sings the national anthem, recites the Pledge of Allegiance and repeats her oath of citizenship. As others in the room wipe tears, Paw Lay has only smiles, her face beaming bright.

“I was so proud of her,” said Harrison. “Having come to know the personal sagas of so many of our students, I know that life in the U.S. and becoming a citizen is life-changing in so many ways.”

Ask Paw Lay to sum up how she feels today, about this moment, and she chooses a word most appropriate for a country that has the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” etched in its history.

“Happy,” she said, laughing. “I feel happy.”

Read more about LSI’s Refugee Community Services.

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