Freshman Thi Aye prevails over hardship


Lauren Loricchio

Try picturing a ravaged community, one in which the houses, or huts, are dark and shuttered, one where children cower with their parents when gunshots are heard outside. Imagine the shouts of rebels, peacefully demonstrating against a corrupt government. Imagine soldiers descending on these protesters, arresting and detaining them. There is havoc and fear. People flee.

That is the story of freshman Thi Aye.

“It was a nightmare,” Aye said.

For her, this world was all too real. For a time, this was her life.

At the age of seven, Aye and her family fled Chin, Myanmar, also known as Burma, a small country snuggled into the coast of the Bay of Bengal. This was in 2007, during the Saffron Revolution, a series of peaceful protests against the militarized government. Unfortunately, these protesters were either arrested or detained by the government.

“Burma wasn’t a friendly place back then,” Aye said. “It was really scary.”

Her family fled to Malaysia to avoid the tumult, although the journey was arduous and long.

“We had to pretend we were luggage [in the row boat] being transported to a different country,” Aye said. “There wasn’t enough space for all of us. There were many storms, so water went inside the boat. Everything was cold and wet.”

Upon arriving in Malaysia, Aye and her family had to journey for six hours in a tightly-packed car in order to reach a refugee camp.

“People were stacked on top of each other since there was little space,” she explained. “Sometimes, there was a huge grown man [sitting] on me. I wanted to cry; I was only seven. But if I did, the police would know.”

Aye and her family reached the refugee camp, which was already swamped and crowded with displaced people. A few days later, however, her mother and father were arrested.

“My parents were arrested for two weeks because we weren’t in the country legally,” she explained. “It took a while [for them to be released], so my sister and I were on our own. We were just kids.”

She and her family lived in the refugee camp for two years, uncertain of their future. They could not go back to Burma, and the camp wasn’t an ideal home.

“There were a lot of kids my age at the camp,” Aye said. “I had fun with them, but living in the camp was hard.”

Soon, however, the family was given the opportunity to enter the United States with a refugee status.

“Not everyone [was granted refugee status], so we were really happy,” she told. “Even now, I have friends and relatives in the camp.”

They arrived in Arizona in late 2009. Aye, like most of her family members, did not know English.

“When I came to the United States, I felt like an alien. I felt like I entered a whole new planet,” she explained.

Aye and her sister were enrolled in a special reading program in order to learn English. Although it was hard at first, they gradually began to learn the language and worked their way through the levels.

Aye and her family soon moved to Catonsville, Maryland, where Aye quickly became a part of her community, participating in food drives and even translating for Burmese people in the area.

In the eighth grade, Aye was nominated by her teacher for the Ben Carson scholarship. The scholarship, according to its official website, “awards students who have embraced high levels of academic excellence and community service.”

When Aye learned about her nomination, she decided to research Ben Carson, the legendary rags-to-riches doctor, and found his story inspiring.

“He was an underdog that didn’t have a lot–like me. He was really determined to succeed despite all of the limits imposed on him,” she said. “He taught me that if you have faith and if you try your best, nothing is impossible.”

Inspired by Carson’s story, she decided to try for the scholarship, which required her to write an essay about community service and what it meant to her.

“At first, I was overthinking it,” Aye admitted. “But then I did a self-reflection on my life and it all flowed out. I wrote about who I am and what I want to become.”

In March 2014, Aye received a letter congratulating her for receiving the $1,000 scholarship. “At first, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Everyone was happy, especially my parents and my English teacher, who nominated me.”

Aye has dedicated the scholarship money for her college fund, and hopes that when the time comes, she’ll be able to major in a scientific field. She aspires to become a doctor and serve her community.

“I want to travel back to Burma to provide good care for people,” she said. “I want to help my home.”

With a scholarship under her belt and an ambitious future ahead, Aye is grateful for the opportunity that so many refugees were deprived of.

“I’m really glad that someone recognized my story,” she smiled. “It makes it seem like everything was worthwhile.”