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‘One of the lucky ones’: Refugee from Myanmar graduates from Hammond High after fleeing war-torn country

Zung Lung Myitung, center, and her siblings Zung Ying, left, and Zawn Nyaui pose for a photo. Zung Lung Myitung, a refugee from Myanmar along with her siblings and parents, graduated from Hammond High School earlier this month.
Zung Lung Myitung, center, and her siblings Zung Ying, left, and Zawn Nyaui pose for a photo. Zung Lung Myitung, a refugee from Myanmar along with her siblings and parents, graduated from Hammond High School earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Zung Lung Myitung)

For some students in Howard County, graduating high school is just a small achievement on a long checklist.

The rigorous expectations of extracurricular activities, scholarships and college could make turning the tassel a little less satisfying than it was for previous generations.

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However, for Zung Lung Myitung, a refugee from Myanmar, graduating from Hammond High School earlier this month was an accomplishment she never could have envisioned growing up.

“I am one of the lucky ones who could come here and have a good life,” she said.

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Myitung, 19, lived the first 11 years of her life in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The country is home to the longest ongoing civil war in the world, which began shortly after Burma became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948.

Along with her parents and her two siblings, Myitung grew up in the resource-rich Kachin State, which borders China and one of several ethnic conflicts going in Myanmar. Kachin and Burmese soldiers have been fighting since 1961, excluding a 17-year ceasefire between 1994 and 2011.

Since the ceasefire ended in 2011, when Myitung was 10, thousands of Kachin civilians have been killed, while more than 100,000 are now refugees in Malaysia, China, the United States and other countries. In 2012, after villages across Kachin were raided and burned down, Myitung and her family fled to Malaysia.

“We had simple lives. We had a farm to eat daily, and we went to the village school,” she said. “Then the government wanted to take all of it. They burned down our homes and they killed our people. They wanted to genocide out the Kachin people. … Many of my friends, neighbors and relatives are still in [internally displaced persons] camps in Burma. They can’t go to school, and they don’t have enough food or clothes.”

After spending four years in Malaysia, the family came to the United States as refugees in September 2016. In the past 10 years, nearly one in four refugees in the United States have come from Myanmar, according to the U.S. Department of State.

“When I first came, I felt so happy and so safe,” she said. “That’s what I felt the most: safe. No one is trying to kill me or attack me here. Finally, I feel safe.”

Myitung was 16 when she arrived in Howard County, and she was admitted to Hammond High School as a freshman; her siblings also entered the Howard County Public School System. Her older sister, Zawn Nyaui, graduated from Hammond last year, and her younger brother, Zung Ying, is a rising senior there.

“When we came to the United States, I had a chance to go to school,” Myitung said. “That was one of the best things to happen in my life. I just wanted to go to school and get a good education. That’s all I wanted, and that’s what my parents wanted for their children.”

Ming Sun, the international achievement liaison at Hammond, said it can be difficult for refugee students to get acclimated when they first arrive. Hammond has a sizable refugee population, and Sun’s job, along with the school’s English as a second language teachers, is to help international students adjust to the new environment and provide them with resources.

“Hammond is one of the most diverse schools in the county,” Sun said. “We help them with their academics and with their post-secondary plans. Oftentimes, their parents don’t know what to do about what their kids can do after they graduate. One of the things I focus on is to help them with their post-secondary planning.”

Myitung spoke Burmese and Kachin growing up, and she still speaks Kachin with her family. She started learning a little bit of English when she was in Malaysia, but she said her freshman year at Hammond was challenging with the language barrier.

“When I first got here, obviously the language was difficult,” Myitung said. “I’m still speaking broken English and I’m still learning it. I couldn’t understand what the teachers were saying.”

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Zung Lung Myitung, a refugee from Myanmar, graduated from Hammond High School earlier this month.
Zung Lung Myitung, a refugee from Myanmar, graduated from Hammond High School earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of Hammond High School)

Myitung said she’s grateful for Hammond’s ESOL teachers, especially Katie McNamara and David McNeal, and Sun, who helped get her and her siblings on free and reduced meals, as well as with many other resources.

“The ESOL teachers and Mr. Sun really helped me and guided me,” Myitung said. “I’m so very thankful to have them in my life.”

“The barrier for her to be successful and to get ahead is large,” Sun said. “When she first came, her English was not as good as it is now. If you talk to her now, her English is pretty good. The ESOL department did a lot to help her learn English.”

As she started to age, though, Myitung started improving in her classes, and now she has aspirations of going to college. A week ago, she was announced as the Maryland English Language Learner Family Involvement Network 2020 Bethel Presbyterian Church Scholarship award winner.

“I was so excited and surprised to win that,” Myitung said of winning the $1,000 scholarship.

In a few weeks, Myitung is planning to join the Army Reserve. After the six-month program ends, she will enroll at Howard Community College. Myitung doesn’t know what she wants to major in yet, but she knows she wants to go back to Myanmar and help provide an education for people in Kachin.

“One thing I know for sure is I want to help my people in Burma,” Myitung said. “I want to open schools and do school for them. I believe education is very important. Only through education can we grow as people and as a nation.”

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