Doi Bu Marip is reluctant to share much about her reasons for leaving Myanmar (then Burma), except to say that she had little future there and that the same difficulties for cultural minorities still exist in the country today. But knowing that she fled at the age of 14 tells you everything about her courage, drive, and optimism.
Doi Bu made her way across the border to Malaysia, scraping by in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, a giant metropolis of now well over seven million people. Nearly 60 million people are fleeing violence or persecution around the globe, and Doi Bu, like many others, was forced to hide in an urban setting, working illegally to find a way to pay for a room and food. “I was not supposed to work,” Doi Bu says. “I was there illegally and was too young, but I took any work I could find. As a waitress, cleaning for people, whatever came up.”
Finding herself among a community of refugees, she heard about how to apply to come to the US. But like everything else in her life, it wasn’t easy. The process took three years to accomplish, and was stressful throughout. “Whenever I would go out, or walk to work, I was so scared that I would get caught. If I saw a police officer, my adrenaline would race. I had friends who were caught and spent months in jail in horrible conditions. Or they would just put you back across the border. You always had to watch your back.” As just a young teenager, alone in a huge city, every day was a high-wire challenge to conquer fear and figure out a way to survive.
Finally, her paperwork to be admitted to the US came through, and at 17, she boarded a plane for Seattle, knowing next to nothing about what would happen when she arrived. “So many questions went through my mind. But I knew I had to go and try. When I arrived, my foster mother Adriana (a connection arranged through Lutheran Community Services Northwest) was there. There were others from LCSNW, and the help they provided was so important.”
Here she is, on the first night at her foster mother’s home:
Doi Bu says she was shocked at the Northwest weather in June. “I remember it was rainy all of that first week in Seattle and I wondered if it always rained!” she recalled. “It was difficult because I was almost 18 and I had to start high school as a freshman. I didn’t fit in at all socially, I was self-conscious about my lack of English. I didn’t make friends because I never talked. I just wondered how am I going to do this?”
That’s where Refugees Northwest/Lutheran Community Services Northwest came in. Our job is to provide a foster parent or parents, a social worker, and an independent living coordinator for these young new arrivals. We work alongside them to rebuild their community and social network, and to help them navigate systems: how to get into high school, how to apply to college and pay for it, how to use a bank account, how to get a job and keep it, how to access the health care system, and much more.
While these programs provided valuable guidance, Doi Bu put in tremendous dedication and hard work. “I went to Everett High School during the day, then at night, I went to Everett Community College for other high school completion courses. I didn’t really have any friends because I didn’t have time. But I always wanted to be well educated and that was the most important thing.”
“The people at Lutheran Community Services Northwest were great. They were so helpful, supportive and patient. And they went through all the stuff I needed to know step-by-step. They were amazing. I couldn’t have done any of this without them.”
It was expected that she would require four years to complete high school, but Doi Bu finished in three. “It was quite a relief and quite an accomplishment,” she says.
She began college studies at Everett Community College. Her interest in the sciences blossomed, especially chemistry. By 2014, Doi Bu transferred from ECC to the University of Washington at Bothell. “I found the right way to study,” she recalls. “And I was determined to do the work. If other people studied two hours a day, I studied four. Or all day.”
A class called “The Brain and Behavior” intensified her curiosity about medicine and brain science, and also gave her important new tools to settle anxieties about language or social situations. She chose a path toward becoming a pharmacist, with a keen interest in helping others. “In my country, anyone with money could open a pharmacy. I actually know people who died because they got the wrong medicines. I was fascinated in school about science, the therapeutic effect of chemicals, how I could counsel patients, and assist them in getting better.”
Doi Bu graduated UW Bothell in June of this year with a dual degree in Biology and Biochemistry.
She’s employed now as a pharmacist’s assistant and recently applied to the 4-year Doctor of Pharmacy program at Washington State University. At her individual interview, she was accepted into the program on the spot and awarded the “Outstanding Merit Scholarship.” How could she have imagined as a terrified 14-year old escaping violence and chaos that she would somehow work her way to this reality as a young scholar successfully reaching for her dream?
More work is ahead, but there is a lightness to Doi Bu’s voice as she talks about her hobbies including jewelry-making, cooking, and fitness. She confirms that she has a network of supportive friends, a boyfriend, a good connection with her foster mom, and a strong belief in herself.
She also has a message for other young refugees. “I truly know how you feel. I know it’s hard to feel so out of place or shy because of your language. But you can do it, one hundred percent. Don’t give up! If your homework confuses you, ask for help. It doesn’t matter if the other kids are much younger, just work hard toward your goal and you can get there, I promise!”
There are other vulnerable young people who are either newly arrived or waiting for a chance to be resettled who, like Doi Bu, have so much to offer. Refugees Northwest and Lutheran Community Services Northwest believe we can all play a role in their success. Please join us at www.refugeesnw.org, on Facebook at Refugees Northwest, or on Instagram and Twitter @refugeesnw.org. Together we can change the world, one young person at a time.