It’s tough for the teens

Struggles with language, culture and bullies make success in America an uphill climb

Hser Ku Htoo struggled and worked and accomplished what fewer than half the young refugees from Burma do in Buffalo. She graduated from high school.

But she wasn’t the sibling who typically did best in school. That would be her brother, Jerry Htoo, the scrawny kid with the innocent face and the tattoo on his chest that says “RIP Mom.”

Once he entered eighth grade, though, Jerry started skipping class and running with tough older kids. Soon he got a second tattoo – “KBB,” short for Karen Blood Boyz, a refugee gang on Buffalo’s West Side.

Within months, one of Jerry’s friends got Jerry’s sister Shell Htoo, then 15, pregnant.

“When I found out about it, I was really, really hurt,” their father said through an interpreter.

For all the wonder of being dropped from bamboo-hut refugee camps into the United States, the adjustment is rough for teens. Younger refugees often do fine, picking up English and quickly fitting into the American way, parents and teachers say.

But many refugee teens struggle with a culture clash that can shatter them.

They are thrown into Buffalo high schools that, until last year, never offered a coherent plan for teaching hundreds of high school students who don’t know English.

They suffer through bullying, peer pressure and isolation. One teen recounted being showered with urine; another, after-school fights.

In the end, more than half of teen refugees from Burma drop out of high school. Some join gangs. Some have babies before they are old enough to drive.

The three siblings – Hser Ku, Shell and Jerry – are living these struggles. Each has had setbacks. But each has found a way beyond them.

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Hser Ku Htoo looks at her cell phone while sitting in the living room of her family's West Side apartment, Friday, March 11, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

With her long black hair and bright red lipstick, Hser Ku Htoo (pronounced Suh-Koo-Too) looks like a model. She dreams of becoming a fashion designer, and she already has designed a wardrobe of tight skirts and bright dresses that make her look like she stepped out of the pages of Vogue.

“A woman that knows her worth doesn’t measure herself against another woman, but stands strong, calm and self-confident,” she wrote on her Facebook page in April.

That attitude and hard work carried her past a lot of hard times.

Hser Ku Htoo and her family fled Burma when she was 8 after the Burmese army, at war with Karen ethnic rebels, burned their village. She remembers her father and a friend carrying her mother, sick with uterine cancer, on a stretcher from their farmhouse to a refugee camp in Thailand miles away.

There, Hser Ku Htoo watched her mother die. She grieved for what seemed like forever, even after the family left for Buffalo when she was 12.

Shy and scared, Hser Ku Htoo enrolled in the sixth grade at Buffalo’s School 6. She did not understand a word her teacher said.

“Every day when I would go home, I would just always cry,” she recalled.

But she was determined to learn English. She started, as many refugees do, by watching TV. She watched “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and other cartoons for an hour or two a day, listening and learning the language.

She still struggled at Riverside High School, which was filled with young refugees like her who spoke their native Karen language. Knowing that wasn’t helping, she transferred to the Math Science Technology Preparatory School, where she knew there would be fewer Karen refugees.

“I never would have learned English so well if I had stayed at Riverside,” she said.

Her dad – a skinny, sweet-faced refugee named Too Plae – encouraged her every step of the way. And she summoned the strength to ignore the bullies who mocked her for being “Chinese.”

By the spring of last year, she graduated from high school. Her hardest lessons were yet to come.

Hser Ku Htoo enrolled at SUNY Buffalo State to study fashion. But she struggled to keep up.

“I don’t really want to give up,” she said last spring. “I want to succeed. But it’s really, really hard.”

Karen children in the third grade at International School 45 participate in a special Karen class in which their native language and culture are embraced as a means of strengthening their already impressive English skills, Monday, June 8, 2015. Students head back to the classroom after an interactive lesson in the school garden. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A decade ago, Tamara Alsace saw them coming – from Burma, from Bhutan, from Iraq.

Refugee resettlement agencies were bringing waves of refugees and their children to Buffalo in hopes of repopulating the city.

So Alsace, at the time the director of multilingual education for Buffalo Public Schools, drew up a plan. Buffalo would start three “newcomer schools,” where refugee teens could learn English before being pushed into other subjects.

But top district administrators pulled the plug, citing costs, several sources said. James Williams, the district’s superintendent at the time, said he didn’t recall Alsace’s proposal. But he remembered what he called a successful Saturday program for refugee teens that was staffed by teachers volunteering their time.

So began the Buffalo schools’ failure to prepare refugee teens for life in America.

Instead of providing those new students with a full-time program that would teach them English first, the district put many of the new arrivals into Lafayette and Riverside high schools. Both ended up on the state’s list of failing schools due to low test scores.

“It was as if the district was just finding a place to warehouse these kids,” Alsace said.

Many refugee teens struggled to learn English. And several teachers said the only ones likely to graduate were those like Hser Ku Htoo who did more than what was demanded of them.

Far more refugees ended up like Mee Reh, who got kicked out of Lafayette for truancy in 2015.

“When I used to go to high school, I didn’t learn anything,” said Mee Reh, a tough-faced young man who is part of Burma’s Karenni minority. “It’s boring. When they teach me, I don’t understand at all.”

Test scores for refugee children from Burma in Buffalo’s grades three through eight show that they did only slightly worse than the district average in the 2014-15 academic year. Refugee students from Burma beat the districtwide average in math in those grades in the past two school years.

But teenagers have a harder time learning a new language. That is why school districts in other refugee-heavy communities such as Rochester started “newcomer schools” years ago.

Buffalo started a Newcomer Academy at Lafayette High School in 2015, and bolstered programming for English language learners at other schools at the direction of Kriner Cash, the district’s new superintendent.

“We are now positioning ourselves to do a much better job,” Cash said.

Fewer than 20 percent of the district’s English language learners graduated in 2013 and 2014. A quarter got diplomas last year.

Refugee students from Burma did slightly better, with the graduation rate in the 20s in 2013 and 2014 before spiking to 43.6 percent last year. District officials attribute that gain to several factors, including better tutoring and an audit that boosted the number of credits some students earned.

Still, more than half the refugees from Burma due to graduate dropped out last year.

“They’re dropping like flies because school is so miserable for them,” said Anna Pacifico, a teacher at Lafayette, before the Newcomer Academy opened.

Jerry Htoo walked around his home through much of last year silent, brooding, expressionless.

That is not unusual for a boy of 14, but it is not the boy his father used to know.

“He was an honor student until he came to Lafayette,” his father, Too Plae, said last year. “Now he’s hanging out with the wrong people and trying to be like them.”

Jerry Htoo told his father he was bullied at Lafayette High School. Jerry refused to offer details, but several other teens did.

Toe Toe Lay, who graduated from Lafayette last year, said that when he was 15, he entered a bathroom stall at Lafayette and heard laughter outside. Seconds later, a plastic bag filled with liquid came flying over the top of the stall, hitting the boy in the head and drenching him with urine.

Bullying at McKinley High School also proved to be too much for Mya Doe Say.

Too Plae, a Karen refugee from Burma who moved to Buffalo after living in a refugee camp in Thailand, looks over at his son, Jerry Htoo, who was 14 at the time, in the living room of their West Side Buffalo home, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

“I dropped out. I couldn’t stand it,” said Mya Doe Say, a muscular young man who left school after fights with Latino students. “They would come out of school and push us, hit us, everything.”

Incidents like that are isolated and not part of a larger pattern of widespread bullying, said Eric Rosser, assistant superintendent of student support.

But several young refugees disagreed, saying many kids are afraid to report bullying.

Jerry Htoo started getting into fights and hanging with older Karen refugees as soon as he enrolled in the eighth grade at Lafayette in fall 2013, his father said.

After hanging with the Karen Blood Boyz, Jerry Htoo started skipping school and getting into trouble when he did go to class.

“Sometimes I cry because he’s not listening to me,” his father said in summer 2015. “I can’t do anything but pray to God for help.”

Mya Doe Say, 19, dropped out of school, saying he couldn't take all the fights with other youngsters, Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Young Asian men with sullen faces, wearing hoodies and loose-fitting jeans, smoke cigarettes and stand their ground on street corners on the West Side.

They may be members of the Karen Blood Boyz, or Karenni 716, or TANAB – the Tanzanian-Asian Bloods. That is a gang that pairs refugees from Somalia with those from Burma’s Karen minority.

These groups are nothing like gangs engaged in high-level drug dealing and street warfare. Police say most of Buffalo’s refugee gang members are poseurs.

“They posted a few pictures on Facebook of themselves with guns,” said Buffalo Police Capt. Steve Nichols, head of community policing. “They were fake guns.”

But some of these kids commit real crimes. Nichols said Buffalo police arrested 21 people, ranging in age from 16 to 22, last year in connection with a wave of several dozen West Side burglaries. A 16-year-old refugee from Burma was suspected to be among the ringleaders.

“A given percentage of the youth decided to burglarize their own ethnic group,” said Brian Patterson, then the chief of the police district that covers the lower West Side. “These people knew that Sunday was the ideal time to break in because the families would be at their religious activities.”

The burglary rate on the West Side has fallen since the arrests. Former gang members and other youngsters said that, for the most part, the gangs returned to the purpose that brought them together several years ago: protecting each other from bullies.

“It’s kind of a community that’s helping other people,” said an early member of the KBB, a high school dropout who asked that his name not be published. “We can’t let people get beat up.”

Jerry’s delicate, waif-like sister, Shell Htoo, was not impressed at first with his friend Doe See.

“I’d always ignore him,” she said.

But Doe See, who was 16, would not be ignored. He kept coming around, and Shell Htoo warmed to his charms.

“I started to like him,” she said. “He was quiet. He was nice.”

Doe See talked with her and held her hand. Shell Htoo loved it, and loved him.

Later that year, though, Shell Htoo started feeling nauseous. So in January 2015, she went to her doctor, who told her she was five months pregnant.

Her father, a devout Christian, knew what the family had to do. Shell Htoo would give birth to her baby and the family would raise the child. But he worried about how his daughter could stay in school and how he could manage with one more mouth to feed.

“I thought the whole future is destroyed and our name reputation is gone,” her father said.

Teenage girls cross the threshold daily at the Priscilla Project on Buffalo’s West Side to ask questions about pregnancy or motherhood.

The Priscilla Project helped arrange for more than 200 refugee women to have their babies delivered last year, said Karen Forster, who runs the program. More than half came from the refugee communities from Burma. A significant minority were teenagers.

Nae Mah holds her then-4-month-old daughter Lydia Nae who sleeps in her arms during an open session with a Burmese-speaking doula at The Priscilla Project, a program to help pregnant women and new mothers through childbirth and parenting as new Americans, Thursday, June 11, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Statistics on the number of refugee teen pregnancies are unavailable. But state Health Department figures from 2011 through 2013 show that in the refugee-heavy ZIP codes on Buffalo’s West Side and Black Rock-Riverside, the teen birthrate was more than double the county average.

A lack of familiarity with birth control appears to be one reason.

Asked about birth control a month after her baby was born, Shell Htoo got a quizzical look on her face.

“Birth control?” she said. “I didn’t have that.”

Other teens at the Priscilla Project said they, too, had little information about birth control.

“A fair number of our Karen girls get pregnant and drop out of school for that reason,” said Kelly Cooper, a teacher at the Newcomer Academy. “Some of them end up working as maids or washing dishes. And their parents came here for them to get an education. Well, maybe their children’s children. Oh, it’s so heartbreaking.”

As the family’s eighth year in Buffalo draws to a close, Jerry, now 15, has stopped going out with friends and gone back to school. He is on the honor roll at Riverside High School.

“He changed when he saw some of his friends go off to jail,” his father said. “It was a wake-up call for him, and he turned himself around.”

Hser Ku Htoo suffered a setback, though not an unusual one for young adults from any background. She dropped out of Buffalo State this fall. Now 20, she cashed in her savings to buy a plane ticket for a two-month visit with refugee friends in Asia and Australia.

“I totally failed,” she said via Facebook last week. “But hello from Singapore.”

Shell Htoo gave birth to a boy on May 10, 2015. She is now 17, and the father of her baby is 18. They tried to make a go of it as a couple, but it didn’t work out. They share custody of little Htoo Blu See. Too Plae tends to his grandson while the boy’s mom is at school.

“I don’t think for myself, only for them, for their future,” said Too Plae, a dishwasher at a Williamsville restaurant.

Shell Htoo struggles to balance studying and motherhood. Still, she is determined to go to college.

“I want to be a nurse,” she said this summer, cradling her little boy in her arms. “And I want him to be a doctor.”

Shell Htoo, 16 at the time, plays with her then-6-month-old son, Htoo Blu See, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Editor's note: The Buffalo News is using the name "Burma," rather than "Myanmar," because refugees generally refer to the nation as Burma, as does the U.S. government. Burma's military regime revived the nation's ancient name of Myanmar in 1989 in hopes of defusing ethnic tensions.

In addition, refugees will be referred to consistently by their full names in this series. That is because natives of Burma don't have first and last names: their full name identifies them at all times.