Meet Ladia Htoo!
Ladia, Supportive Services Coordinator at Arapahoe Green, has done nothing but incredible work since the day she joined our team. I asked her what inspired her to go into the field of human services, and for her it is quite simple.
“I’ve always had that role, from the time I was young.”
She tells me that she lived the first part of her life in a refugee camp in Thailand. Though her parents are from Myanmar, she has never been due to ongoing conflict.
When she came to Buffalo, NY in 2008, no one in her family knew a single word of English. Not only did this create a substantial barrier with navigating their environment, but for Ladia that also translated into schooling.
“School wasn’t easy because everything was so different. I went from being taught my historical origins, languages used by Karen people (the ethnic group which Ladia and her family belong to) in refugee camps, and some math to being taught US history, going through various standardized state tests, English, and science. I came to the US as a third grader so I didn’t have the foundational knowledge that was taught in prior grades and it was hard.”
Despite the jarring changes and fast paced adjustments Ladia had to learn to make, she still managed to become a helper in her community when she began picking up English.
“By the time I was 9 years old I was helping my parents, their friends and my relatives with translation, reading mail and going with them to their appointments to help them understand the process even though I knew very little at the time.”
It followed, then, that she would find herself working in a way that helps others.
“I have always had a passion for helping and with my experiences I always wanted to be someone that could provide legal support to disadvantaged communities. I have first hand experience in facing hardships due to lack of opportunities, resources, knowledge and help. Growing up with that, I learned to be humble and found a desire to help in a way that I wished I was helped.
“In many stages of life, I meet people from various cultural backgrounds needing support and I’ve always tried to help in any way I can. It can be as simple as listening to their struggles and just being present to understand their frustration so that they feel like they are not alone in their struggle.”
When I asked her about the culture shock of coming to a new country with very little support, it brought up a larger reality for many refugees: a lack of identity.
“Many refugees, particularly child refugees, don’t feel much of a connection to their home country, as it could be many years since they have lived there, if ever. But you don’t really feel belonging in the new country either. You don’t speak the language, you aren’t a citizen, most of the time your name and birthday is reassigned.
“For instance, I went a long time without a last name. My first name has 3 syllables, which is often considered a complete name. It wasn’t until coming to the US that I had a last name assigned. But oftentimes, due to poor record keeping, birthdays are unknown. Many refugees have a birthday of January 1st.”
Beyond the basic documentation that helps shed light on who we are, the cultural differences can tend to create rifts as well. Ladia tells me about difficulties being heard when English isn’t your first language.
“A lot of times the language barrier can leave you feeling misunderstood or counted out. If I speak too slow the automatic assumption is that I need a translator. If I don’t have enough time to think something through I feel as if I am not properly expressing myself.
“This can make it difficult for a refugee to build confidence and try to establish a successful life when you’ve already been categorized, even if you have your citizenship. I’ve met a lot of people that thought getting their citizenship would change things. And while it does allow access to certain resources, it doesn’t change how you’re perceived.”
“So, what do you think are critical components of a culturally inclusive environment?”
“I would say, more than just listening, it’s important to let the other person tell you who they are or what they need. Already, refugees have spent so much time being told who they are and what they can do. It is important to let them be the one to dictate for themselves. Even as simple as asking their name and the proper spelling, as this is often not correct on documents.
“It’s important to create a welcoming environment where things aren’t assumed. You want everyone to feel welcomed. Differing mindsets and viewpoints are actually beneficial as it opens up doors to many opportunities. Everyone deserves a welcoming environment to allow for their ideas, knowledge and experiences to be heard and understood.”