Stories: • Arizona an unlikely haven
A new home
College a challenge
A father's sacrifice
About the project
Refugees from Burma
Refugees from around Africa
Refugees from Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan
Refugees from Southeast Asia

Lal Len Mawi is a first-generation Chin Burmese college student in Arizona. She is a community health major who attends Arizona State University on a full academic scholarship.

"I think I had kind of an intrinsic motivation that comes from my inside. It’s just -- I love studying," she said.

In Burma, the average education level is third grade or lower. In Arizona, Mawi graduated second in her high school class.

“I almost speak no English when we got here,” she said.

Mawi attended high school online, where her developing language skills weren’t the social barrier they could have been in a public high school. If given the choice, many refugees choose this route.

The Valley’s Chin Burmese community's 4,000 members are making sure their youth face better odds, even as elders struggle to learn English and adapt to American jobs.

“If the family is not strong enough to support their education, the children are left behind,” said Chin community president Tom Taknan.

Taknan is president and one of the most well-educated members of the community. He was one of the first Chin refugees to arrive in Arizona, and completed an undergraduate and master's degree at ASU.

During his time at the university, he’s worked alongside researchers at the School of Social Work, who are growing the small existing body of research about U.S. refugee communities.

Mawi’s father, Kawl Za Biak, could have put his children to work, but instead he sacrificed the added income to let his four children study full time.

“I want to give my children the opportunity to study, succeed, and even get a scholarship for their work,” Biak said.

Lal Len Mawi and her father, Kawl Za Biak.

He bears the financial burden for the family, leaving early in the morning for an hour-long drive to his job making sushi at a Gilbert grocery store.

Biak carpools to work each morning with three coworkers. Transportation is a big deal for refugees, according to caseworkers. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to successful, well-paid employment.

Biak was able to make his job work thanks to a car. He was also able to help several other Burmese men find jobs at Fry’s so they could drive together.

Back in Burma, the government used Biak and his family as forced labor to build bridges without pay.

In the U.S. he earns just above minimum wage and works long hours, so his children can focus on their studies.

Biak and Mawi’s understanding that allows her to go to college is rare in the refugee community. Often parents come to the U.S. with no marketable job skills or English proficiency and are stuck in low-paying jobs that take them away from their family for hours.

The parents use time and energy that could be spent learning English and job skills to support their family.

Education is still a big deal for their children, but parents are often tempted by the idea of having their older children contribute financially.

While that may help the family and parents in the short term, this strategy doesn’t always pay off. Jobs distract already-burdened teenagers from schoolwork. And they are often pressured to continue supporting the family after they graduate high school, ruling out college.

In the end, families are immediately more comfortable, but over time no one rises beyond entry-level, minimum-wage work and the family stays relatively poor and burdened.

But Biak focused on a future for his children.

"I will do whatever it takes to help my children accomplish their dreams. Their dreams are my dreams,” he said.

It’s an opportunity his daughter Mawi is thankful for.

"You, no one can steal your education. You can go anywhere and be the person you want to be," she said.

This investment is the best insurance a father’s sacrifice can buy.

Lal Len Mawi