Originally Posted Online: May 08, 2011, 6:25 pm
Last Updated: May 08, 2011, 10:50 pm

Refugee finds happiness, love of learning in Quad-Cities

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Mu Lei helps Paw Pah learn English using a computer program at the Rock Island downtown library on Thursday morning. Ms. Lei is one of 10 students statewide to win the Spotlight on Achievement Award, given out by Secretary of State Jesse White. Mu Lei was honored for developing and improving her literacy skills. Ms. Lei lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for 12 years and now she works part-time providing translation services for local social service agencies.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Mu Lei is one of 10 students statewide to win the Jesse White and Illinois Press Association Spotlight Award for Outstanding Literacy Students and Tutors. Mu Lei was honored for developing and improving her literacy skills. Ms. Lei lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for 12 years and now she works part-time providing translation services for local social service agencies.

ROCK ISLAND — She smiles often because she can't believe her good fortune.

Mu Lei, 29, has shoes today and more than one set of hand-me-down clothes to wear. Her three children, ages 8, 4 and 1, have shoes, too. Food, running water, electricity, a bed — these are things she never dreamed were attainable in her lifetime.

Distance separates Ms. Lei from her previous existence, growing up in war-torn Burma and later in a refugee camp in Thailand.

It was a harsh life, sometimes violent, bereft of comfort. Maybe she smiles to make up for early memories, when happiness was as hard to come by as a full meal.

Ms. Lei's life story is one of survival, of trying to keep her spirit from being shattered by the sadness and violence around her.

Ms. Lei's survival has brought her on an unlikely journey to Rock Island, where she lives with her three children and her husband in Manor Homes.

Ms. Lei, a Black Hawk College student in the college's family literacy program, said she never gave up hope. Now, she is trying to make up for lost time.

On Saturday, Ms. Lei was given the college's Student Commitment to Excellence Award. On Wednesday, she is being honored in Springfield by Secretary of State Jesse White as a recipient of the Spotlight on Achievement Award.

Ten such achievement awards are given annually throughout the state, selected from the 37,000 adult learners in Illinois. The award is based on the student's commitment to learning.

Two awards in five days — Ms. Lei shakes her head at the thought of receiving any recognition. She has come far.

At the Rock Island Library on Thursday morning, Ms. Lei was in class, reading, absorbing words like a sponge absorbs water. She takes the bus from Church of Peace in Rock Island to the library for part of her class studies.

At the library, she opened a window into the heartache of her past.

"When I was 1 month old, my mother die," Ms. Lei said. "When I was 1 year old, my father die. Grandma help."

When Ms. Lei was 12, her grandmother grabbed her from their burning Burmese village and never looked back. Ms. Lei said many villagers died as government soldiers came in and destroyed what remained of their huts and scattered personal belongings.

The little girl and her grandmother held hands, walked and ran in the Southeast Asian heat with only the clothes on their back.

They reached a refugee camp in Thailand, where Ms. Lei lived for 12 years. At age 14, her grandmother died, leaving the girl on her own. She lived with a family among the hungry and dispossessed. She cooked, cleaned, carried water, swept dirt floors, did all the chores for the family to earn her one daily meal.

She wasn't allowed to leave camp. Bad things happened as the young girl tried to fend for herself, but Ms. Lei would not let a lack of humanity and decency stop her dreams of someday being free. Meanwhile, people died of malaria around her for lack of mosquito nets; others simply existed.

Ms. Lei said World Relief sponsored her journey to America in 2008. She worked in a Chicago hotel, cleaning rooms and bathrooms before coming to Rock Island with her husband, Hser Mu Shee.

The library is like Ms. Lei's sanctuary, a place to grow and improve. She never tires of looking at the aisles of books, never dreaming so many books could be available for her to see and touch, to learn and discover.

Her teacher, Lisa Viaene, the college's site facility coordinator, nominated Ms. Lei for both awards.

"Her English skills have improved so much," Ms. Viaene said. "She just wants to learn. She just craves learning. Her story is so inspiring."

Ms. Viaene said Ms. Lei is working on her GED. She's studying to become a U.S. citizen. She volunteers her language skills to help the city when an interpreter is needed.

Ms. Lei smiles but does not forget the harsh past. She said her dream is to have enough money to someday bring boxes of clothes and food back to the refugee camps in Thailand.

Her voice expresses a passion and empathy for those less fortunate she left behind.

"Now, I'm free in America," she said. "I can go, I can study, I can learn.

"I can make it. I proud of myself. Nobody can stop me to learn.

"I happy, too."

Ms. Lei smiles again, a reminder of the power of the human spirit.