Teen refugee flees and flourishes

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Daung Nwe Aye is a 16-year-old Burmese refugee who was born in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border after her parents fled Burma and its oppressive military rulers. Daung was three years old when her mother and father and their two children were granted admission to the United States. They settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Daung with Dad and Mom

Daung with her parents and a harvest from their garden.

Technically a second generation refugee/immigrant, Daung shows in this 11-minute video interview how quickly a refugee can assimilate into a new culture, including picking up “teen speak.” She talks about her family and friends, the importance of her Muslim faith, how she finds high school in America as a non-native-born citizen, about her home countries, and she tells of her aspirations. She wants to become an OBGYN physician, and we think she will achieve that. And much more.

The transcript of John Gevers’ interview with Daung Nwe Aye follows:

DNA: (My name is) Daung New Aye [do ang •  n’way • ee].

JG: And how do you spell that? (See above.)

DNA: I’m sixteen.

JG: How old were you when you came to the United States?

DNA: When I came here, I was three-and-a-half. I was born in Thailand, and, um, I lived in a camp for a little while. Currently, I’m attending school to get my diploma so I could go to college and go to med school. I want to become an OBGYN (physician). I love children, and I want to, like, help them  — help woman and help childrens come into the world.

JG: And where do you go to high school here in Fort Wayne?

DNA: I go to Northrop High School. I like it a lot. My best friends are, like, um, Vietnamese and there’s Malaysian and I have a lot of Burmese friends.

In the United States, we have the right of freedom of speech and religion. I’m a Muslim which means my religion is Islam, and, like, I really care about my religion. Like, I don’t wear a hijab (head covering) and I don’t pray five times a day, but, like, I remember who I am and, like, I still have dignity about myself, you know?

It’s Ramadan right now, and I’m fasting; I try to fast every day. I wake up before the sun comes up and I eat and drink water so I stay hydrated during the day, and then, um, (when) I have to stop my fast, I say this prayer. And then, so like, for the rest of the day I can’t eat or drink or, like, it’s even bad to fight with my little brother or fight with anyone, you know, it’s not good. I can eat when the sun goes down.

JG: Let me make sure I understand, so: You wake up before the sun comes up and you can eat a little bit and drink at that time?

DNA: Yes.

JG: And then the sun comes up and then no food and you try to be good and not argue or what have you for the whole day. And then when the sun goes down, you can have a regular meal again?

DNA: Yes.

JG: Okay. And how often do you do that during Ramadan?

DNA: Um, for all thirty days or, like, as many days as you can.

JG: Okay, and I’ve heard there are parties at Franke Park during this time?

DNA: (chuckling) Parties?

JG: Yeah, have you heard of those?

DNA: (still chuckling) Yes. Those days are the best because it’s the end of the month, and there’s like a feast and all the Muslims, well almost all the Muslims, um, gather at that place and we all pray and then we all eat. And all the kids have new clothes and so do the adults. And, like, the little kids – if you go around and say, “Salaam — — Ead,”  the adults will give you a treat or, like, a few dollars because you were good.

JG: You’re living in Indiana. Do you like it here?

DNA: I like Indiana because it’s, like, a very good place for families to grow up and live, but I also like to, like, go to New York City and to the beach and places like that.

JG: It’s a really Christian area (Indiana). The majority of people are Christian. Does that cause you any problems or do you find that people let you live just like you let them live?

DNA: I can live like I live, like, sometimes in school, like there are kids who, like, are biased or racist, and they’ll say things like, “Ha! You’re a terrorist” or, you know, “You’re Asian!” And so, like, sometimes it hurts me, but I just forget about it cause I still know who I am and, like, I shouldn’t – I know better than to let their words hurt me.

JG: Have you always felt that way or has it become easier as you’ve gotten older?

DNA: It’s become easier as I got older.

With my rights as living in the United States I’ve got freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to live how I want to, and the people, they can come here and they can live how they want to. The new people (refugees and immigrants) they can go out and go to school, have an education if they try hard, but, I think, for the people that’s already living in the United States, it’s for them to make the new people feel welcome and feel like – even if you don’t like them, like don’t say mean things to their faces or like snicker at them when they walk by.

JG: Do you have any desire to go back to Thailand or to Burma to visit?

DNA: Yes.

JG: Do you?

DNA: I really want to go to Thailand and Burma. I want to, like, visit all the cities, like, even the countryside, the cities. Especially like the places I lived in and the places my parents met and where they lived in.

JG: What do you think about all that’s going on in Burma right now?

DNA: I think it’s . . . I don’t know what to do, like . . . . I think it’s really bad and I wish . . . I wish that even if it’s not like in this generation, in the future generations – even if my parents don’t get to see it – that Burma becomes free and, like, the people that ran away, the students, they could go back in Burma and not be shot or arrested.

I volunteer a lot and my parents, um, both of my parents are in the Committee of the Burmese Muslim community. So, like, if there’s an event going on, I’ll go and, um, I’ll go help and interpret. English is really easy for me.

JG: Do you have any ideas as a young person as you are, when you see the new refugees from Burma coming to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and you see them in their apartments – I’m sure you’ve visited them – do you have any ideas of how our society could help them more than we already are?

DNA: Our society could help them more by helping them learn English, and we are; it’s just giving them reasons why to learn. Many of them understand that, like, it’s very important to learn English, to pay your bills – the electricity bill, the water bill, everything – and then, if you want to work, you have to learn how to speak English so, like you could pay for all that.

JG: So trying to get them to know the importance of the language is one thing. Is there anything else?

DNA: Many kids that grew up here – even the Burmese kids – are very different from the new . . . the new kids.

JG’S NOTE: As you’ll hear her explain in a moment, Doang tries not to refer to recently arrived refugees as “refugees.” She prefers “new kids” or “newcomers.”

DNA: Like some of the girls here, they just stay home and clean and they can’t leave the house unless it’s to go shopping and – like grocery shopping – not to hang out with friends that much. And, like, I don’t want to influence them in a bad way, but I want to, like, just hang out with them, and, like, to see what it’s like to, like, be with other people, other races. Because when you like . . . it’s just like going back to kindergarten: it doesn’t matter about what race you are or, like, how old you are, where you came from, because you just meet someone and you act like you’re best friend.

JG: And why aren’t the girls that are coming over with the families recently from Burma . . . why aren’t they allowed to go out very much?

DNA: I’m guessing it’s because where they lived back in Thailand (in the refugee camps), it was like that. Like, girls didn’t get to do . . . girls didn’t get to have as much freedom as the boys did.

JG: Is that tradition?

DNA: Yeah, that is tradition.

JG: Is that heavily influenced by the Islamic faith, do you think? Or would that be even in the Buddhist families? Do you have any idea?

DNA: Yeah, Buddhist and Islamic faiths.

I try not to call the refugees, like “refugees” because I’m afraid, like, especially in front of them, I don’t want them to feel like they’re lower than me. Or like somebody will ask me, “How long have you lived in the United States?” (I reply,) “Oh, I’ve been here since I was three – eleven, ten years.” And they’re like, “Oh, really? You must know a lot of English; we don’t know anything.” I don’t want them to feel like they can’t learn and they can’t try hard to fit in here.

JG: And do you think that by calling them “refugee” it puts them in a different, ah, class, different category?

DNA: Yes.

JG: I see. And do you think that my calling somebody a refugee does the same thing or is it because you’re also Burmese and . . .

DNA: I’m a refugee myself and I fled Thailand and Burma with my parents.

JG: What would you say to an American, a native-born American, who doesn’t think that refugees and other immigrants should keep coming to the United States?

DNA: Like even though the refugees come here and they have to live off food stamps and cash money (assistance) for a while, they don’t get as much money to . . . some people only get $48 a month for, like, a family of six people, but over there it’s even worse. They don’t get to eat meat or the vegetations. Some people are really malnourished over there and they’re punished. Even in Thailand, I think they’re like discriminated (against), too., because the people from Burma came into Thailand, and they’re kind of illegal.

JG: Are you happy here?

DNA: I’m happy here. I get to live in a nice house and my parents care about me. They care about, um, my brother’s and my education a lot. Like, they don’t want to see us – well, I don’t think any parents want to see their kids fail or be bad, but I’m like really thankful that my parents work really hard for us to live like this.

JG: What about the rest of your life? Do you allow yourself to think ahead and think what you want?

DNA: Yeah, I always think about what I want. Um, I think about . . . I can see myself, um, coming to visit my parents all the time. Um, like always seeing my family on the weekends. Um, I plan on getting married with my parents approval when I’m older, like when I’m able to have a good life, and financially stable to have a family.

# # #


9 Responses to “Teen refugee flees and flourishes”

  1. This is such a lovely moment in the life of a young Burmese woman who has largely grown up in the US and is living in Indiana. Daung has such presence and sense of who she is. I especially loved when she said, “I remember who I am . . . and I still have dignity about myself.” It was such a gift to hear that from a young woman in high school from any background!
    John, I love the way that you give your viewer a glimpse of the interview process, not just the words of the person being interviewed but include the questions that you have as a life-long Hoosier. I wonder what questions the “typical” Hoosier might have for the folks you interview. I wonder about the questions that these folks have had from typical Hoosiers that have been engaging, difficult, insulting and that have opened up helpful dialogue. Might be something to explore!

    • yearningtobreathefree Says:

      Krista, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Daung is, indeed, a strong young lady. Her whole family is remarkable and you’ll be hearing more from them as Yearning to Breathe Free grows.
      You’ve given me a good question to ask upon subsequent times with Daung and her family. Thank you! And thanks for being in my audience.

    • December 28, 2009 at 8:48 pm

      A chosen few Burmese, well documented. Where is the rest of the story? Where is the current reality here? Where are the interviews, pictures of the dirtier, seedy, neglected, huddled masses of the majority refugee/Burmese populations of Fort Wayne. Go to Autumn Woods, Brendonwoods, Griswold street apartments, Centlivre. Really search, really observe, really document the current refugees actual struggle to “just breathe” in Fort Wayne. The majority of Fort Wayne citizens “non-typical Hoosiers” are not taken by these puff pieces anymore, they demand reform, not art form for refugees, and from city leader

      • yearningtobreathefree Says:


        I hope Daung Nwe Aye and Mi Nar don’t take your words calling their stories “puff pieces” to heart. In case you didn’t realize it, their stories were told in their very words. I edited nothing.

        Mi Nar lives with her daughters in one of the very apartment complexes you refer to, and I’ve spent much time in those new homes for the refugees. And the Sunday School graduation ceremony took place on the grounds of one of the apartment complexes. Interestingly, I worked in the very same low income apartments as a caseworker in the late 1980s when they were home to a different population. I have been surprised by the improved conditions of the same apartments now that they’re home to refugees largely from Burma. We as a society have much to learn from our newest neighbors from far off lands, including living in what many Americans consider to be less than desirable housing conditions. We are a spoiled, pampered population by and large.

        Circumstances and conditions are rarely just right like we all would like them to be, especially if we’re prone to want the best for all humankind, according to our own culture’s values. However, I for one hope to tell stories that not only show the negative of what is happening but also the more positive. I believe that we improve conditions partly by showing, talking about, and inspiring from the positive. And using art forms to convey such has been used for centuries.

        From Yearning to Breathe Free’s FAQ page I quote, “This is a labor of love for me. My attention and time must first go to my clients whose projects enable me to pay the bills. I post content on this blog as I get the time to work on Yearning to Breathe Free. If you’re a sugar daddy, or you know of one, please introduce us. I would love to pursue Yearning full-time.”

        I have captured many stories that have gone untold in this format to date due to the lack of long enough days to produce them. The next one is coming soon, I hope. I can do only what I can do since life is full of other demands. This is also only the blog of a larger documentary exhibition I am creating over a 2-4 year period. You won’t see it all here.

        Finally, I am impressed that you can speak for “the majority of Fort Wayne citizens.” Art form IS one way to reform, and I’m one in a long line who attempt to offer this to society. When you use the word “demand,” I think you might want to consider how it sounds and what it means to your fellow human beings who are offering what they can to help others in their considerable life struggles and to help them assimilate into a new culture.

  2. Kent Deitemeyer Says:

    Thanks again, John. Another installment that continues to give us the fresh insight of recent migrants that very probably reflects the same experiences and personal perspectives that our own immigrant relatives faced after coming through Ellis Island. It is a wonderful reminder to all of us is that we need to extend the values of acceptance and compassion to new migrants otherwise we deface our own personal migrant family history of struggle to settle in a new country even if it was well over 100 years ago. Your effort to record this contemporary migrant history remains an important contribution for not just Indiana but also what is going on elsewhere in the USA. Keep up the great work!

    • yearningtobreathefree Says:

      Thank you very much, Kent, for your comment and support. I agree that there are clearly cycles going on in this story and I increasingly get the feeling the best thing my project and I are offering is, quite simply, documentation of current immigration to the United States. Imagine if we had had this kind of material from our grandparents. Man, I’d LOVE THAT.

  3. Katie Austin Says:

    I really enjoyed this video! Daung Nwe Aye is a beautiful young lady who helped provide me with a little insight to the Burmese people coming to Ft. Wayne. Thank you John for sharing this really great interview! I can’t wait to see more!

    • yearningtobreathefree Says:

      Thanks for watching, Katie. Daung is, indeed, a beautiful young lady who I enjoyed talking with for this interview. I remain fascinated by how well she has assimilated into the usual teen American life while maintaining her native-born cultural heritage. She has to keep a foot in both worlds to be happy and as you noticed, she IS happy. And successful. A lot of credit really goes to her parents. What they have accomplished through very hard work in the 11 years they’ve been in America is astounding and tends to make me feel like a slacker. I have gained much inspiration from meeting today’s newest immigrants to the U.S.

  4. With all due respect, please be careful when generalizing all of Americas population as spoiled, pampered by and large, as a pretext to opening themselves wide open to any, and every refugee that grants asylum on our shores. Many Americans have this fascination for people, and things all inclusively exotic, not a bad trait, but most are not astute to the dangers inherent. Regular Americans are the ones funding, through tax dollars, thousands of new refugees that have unfortunately displaced the original minorities, and others, from those very same apartment communities. Those communities have always been neglected by city leaders, until now, when this second minority”refugees” has been declared as the first priority minority. At the present time though, even with first priority labeling, systems in place are failing to get delivered as ordered.

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