Equity & Diversity

The Saddest Story About Refugees in the U.S. You’ll Ever Read

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 07, 2010 1 min read
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A series about the profound loss and confusion a Burmese refugee couple experiences after their 7-year-old daughter is murdered in Salt Lake City is a “runner-up” winner for one of the categories of the 2010 Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism. The young man suspected of murdering the child is also a Burmese refugee to Salt Lake City.

The 2009 series shows how the U.S. court system’s lack of capacity to overcome language and cultural barriers in communicating with the couple leads to their becoming overwhelmed and confused about the investigation of their daughter’s murder. At one point, the bereaved mother is so frustrated that she throws court papers away.

What I find interesting are a couple of references to how one school district employee supports the couple. When the couple is first resettling in the country, they run low on food, and they can’t locate their resettlement caseworker, who is called “Mr. Tomorrow” by refugees because of his unreliability. The couple turns to a woman who serves as a refugee liaison for the Granite School District in the Salt Lake City area, who takes them groceries and helps them set up a phone. And after the couple moves their family from Utah to Iowa, this same woman contacts them with updates on what’s happening in the case of the man charged with murdering their daughter. I can imagine that when this woman agreed to be a school refugee liaison, she never thought she’d be following a murder case.

For the series, Missing Peace, Salt Lake City Tribune reporter Julia Lyon traveled to a camp for Burmese refugees in Thailand that the couple had lived in prior to moving to the United States with their children in 2007. (Her international travel was supported by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University, which explains how she could do this kind of work during these difficult financial times for newspapers.)

I think the message for educators from this series is to understand that refugees are often left very much to their own devices in this country even if they are officially supposed to be receiving support from resettlement agencies.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.