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Arbutus teen originally from Myanmar wins Carson scholarship

Thi Dar Aye is one of thousands of people who have left Myanmar (Burma) hoping to find a better life.

On Monday she learned she is one of only 510 students from across the United States who have been awarded Ben Carson scholarships.

The award honors students in grades 4 through 11 who demonstrate outstanding academic achievement and humanitarian qualities.

The eighth-grader at Arbutus Middle School, a straight A student, is the first Arbutus Middle student since 2011 to receive a $1,000 Ben Carson scholarship.

She was selected, in part, based on an essay she wrote about her life in Myanmar and how she'd like to peacefully change the world.

She and her family came to the U.S. from Malaysia in 2009, where they had lived in a refugee camp for a year after they had escaped from Myanmar, a country in southeast Asia near Laos and Thailand.

A civil conflict has been raging in Myanmar since the country achieved its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.

To leave the country, her family had to hide on a small boat to reach Malaysia, more than 1,100 miles away. They were covered in sheets to hide from the authorities, who would have thrown her family in jail, she said.

"I remember like it was yesterday," Thi Dar said. "It was so difficult for me because I was so young back then and my mom was so weak."

She said her family would go days without food.

"I guess it was all worth it," she said of her journey. "Because now I'm living a good life."

It's hard for her to talk about those days.

"I don't want to remember it. I would see my mom working hard every day but not getting enough for what she did," Thi Dar said.

"Coming here was just a life changing moment for me," she said.

Now 14, she compares life in Myanmar to the Charles Dickens novel "A Tale of Two Cities," that she's reading in her English class.

"The poor class was so different from the rich class," she said. "I was in the poor class, so I didn't live in a nice neighborhood and there was a lot of violence going on."

Life here is the exact opposite, she said.

"I feel like even though my mom and dad are working really hard, everything they're doing is paying off. I get to go to a great school and have great teachers," she said.

A student in the Gifted and Talented program at Arbutus Middle, Thi Dar is a "fantastic" student, said language arts teacher Lynn Elliott.

In addition to her academic work, Thi Dar is actively involved in chorus and likes to sing.

"She sings like an angel and she has an amazing voice, " Elliott said.

"Ms. Elliott supports me every time that I need help," Thi Dar said, looking at her English teacher. "I don't think there's any other teacher like her, because she's spent extra time with me."

"She taught me acceptance throughout this whole year," she said.

Thi Dar lives in the Maiden Choice Lane community with her parents, Ngun Nay and Hoi Khang, and three sisters: Elizabeth, 3; Zing, 4; and Sung, 16.

She said her mother continues to inspire her and is her role model.

"My mom is a very strong person. She grew up as an orphan. She stayed in a really harsh environment...she's like a flower that grew, so beautifully," Thai Dar said.

Her mother taught her to have a positive perspective on life, she said.

"My mom taught me that life depends on how you look at it," she said.

Thi Dar said she hopes to someday travel the world as a doctor, so she can help those in need, like her extended family who still live in Myanmar.

"I want to go around the world and make a difference," she said.

She is making a difference now. Fluent in three languages, English, Burmese and Zotung, the dialect of her village in Myanmar, she often helps those in her community who have to the area from Myanmar by translating for them at banks, schools and other places.

While she hopes to replace the old memories of violence with better ones of her new life, she said her past has given her a different perspective on life and has changed her for the better.

"I see the world differently now," she said. "I learned that if you keep thinking about the things you don't have in life, you'll never appreciate what you have until it's all gone."

The 18th Annual Maryland Awards Banquet will honor new and recognized Carson scholars from Maryland and across the Mid-Atlantic region on April 6 at Martin's West.

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