Oh God, what have I done?
If Tial Cuai had stayed in Myanmar, she and her four children would probably die, maybe in prison, but at least family could retrieve their bodies.
Here they were in the horrible, overloaded motorboat dealt them by human smugglers who packed 50 people like stock animals in the night to skirt the Myanmar-Thailand border by sea.
She had doomed her four children, her youngest, Van Lal Lian, a frail 10 years old, to disappear in the black ocean, she was sure.
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Every morning when she had laid her hands on each child’s head in prayer for them, she had believed in goodness. How could she make such a mistake?
She tells the story with Van, now 18, who sits at her side on the couch in their Kansas City, Kan., home and interprets the 64-year-old woman’s Chin into English.
He, too, thought they were going to die — drenched by water polluted with the vomit, urine and feces of seasick children and adults that swirled up to their knees in the open boat.
The Wyandotte High School senior can’t say now if he abandoned his dream then, or if he ever believed it had a chance.
Since he was 7 or 8 he thought there must be a way to build homes for poor families like theirs with roofs that didn’t leak rainwater into whatever buckets and pans they could find below.
“I always had that dream,” Van said. “But I had no idea how to pursue it.”
Cuai can’t say she had any plan for her children. She had no thought that America might be in their future. She didn’t know where or how she could ever deliver her children to the high school education she never had, which she knew could not happen if they stayed.
The unfathomable possibility her son might win a Gates Millennium Scholars all-college-tuition-paid scholarship didn’t exist.
She just had to get them out of Myanmar without dying.
Van, the 13-year-old who arrived in the Kansas City, Kan., school district, didn’t talk of these things.
Not just the boat ride stayed inside him, but every other terrifying and suffocating piece of their journey, and the loss of his father.
How could he tell, even if he had wanted to? He came with no English.
He was a private person, but he worked at school with a zeal that was startling, teachers said.
“He kept wanting more and more complex stuff,” said Ken Willard, an English teacher who specialized in helping students who spoke a different language.
Van used stories on Greek mythology to take on more difficult texts, Willard said.
“He was constantly going back to the dictionary, looking for the words to express his feelings,” Willard said. “By the time he was a sophomore, his work was better than a lot of the students who’d grown up speaking English.”
So much of his first two years of school — eighth grade at Central Middle and then his freshman year at Wyandotte — seemed caught up in just finding his feet and trying to run in the daunting American culture, Van said.
It wasn’t long into his freshman year that he began to grab onto the question adults in his American high school seemed to sprinkle over everyone almost as routinely as the morning announcements.
“They were asking, ‘What’s your future plan?’”
What’s your dream?
He remembered, he said.
“I want to build affordable, sustainable housing. I want to be an architect. But I didn’t know how to become one.”
Van latched on to Wesley Lee, the computer-aided drafting and design teacher.
“I’m looking for creativity,” said Lee, who is in his 15th year teaching after 25 years as a Black & Veatch engineer, “and Van is pushing, wanting to go to the next step. He’s pulling me.”
They still didn’t really know what was driving Van so hard. They didn’t know yet about his family’s escape, his hiding in wet grass from patrols with leeches on his legs, or being crammed in a van so tight he pressed his head into the seam of a closed window desperate for a breath.
He had his mother’s prayers carrying him — every morning with her hand on his head as she’d always done.
She noticed what her son was doing, Cuai said. She saw the way he had picked up English so much more quickly than anyone else and was mastering school.
She sat with Van his junior year during the end-of-year awards ceremony at Wyandotte and listened as he interpreted for her the things happening on the stage. One of the graduating seniors, Natalie Walton, had won a Gates Millennium scholarship, he whispered to her. All tuition paid.
“Son,” she said to him in Chin, “we’re going to pray for this.”
Tammecca Maxwell remembers her first real glimpse at Van’s story.
She was the coordinator of Wyandotte’s college prep center, helping Van with the many scholarships he was pursuing.
Many of them, especially those scholarships that were largely based on family need, required essays describing what the applicant had to overcome to reach college.
“It was chilling,” Maxwell said.
Here was a student in command of his language, writing from his heart the things that he hadn’t felt were proper to share before.
He did all his rewriting himself, she said, determined that the voice in his essays “be authentically him.”
His father had gotten in trouble, sneaking by bicycle from their home in Tamu across the border into India, selling vegetables and goods in a desperate effort to earn money, Van said. Police and soliders wanted to arrest him, and they threatened the rest of his family with the same.
The boat ride they thought might kill them all landed them on a dark shore in Thailand. Van and other small children were loaded flat like wood into the back of a truck and covered with a tarp. He was on the end, and his head was uncovered. When he tried to pull it over his head, a man walking by the truck clubbed him in the ear.
Others making this escape had been caught, they were told. The tent that housed them was pointed out. He believed they were doomed if they were caught to a life in jail or slave-like labor in fishing boats or worse.
To get to the ride that would take them through Thailand to Malaysia, they had to hide in grass at night, waiting to be sure it was clear before they dashed across roads.
“You should look at your legs,” Van said another child told him as they were crouched in the dark. That’s when he saw the leeches all over him.
They rode all through the night in the suffocatingly packed van to the refugee camp near Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
The camp was safe, but there was no schooling. At some point during the three years they waited there, they received word that their father had died in Myanmar. The cause, they heard, was malaria, but they don’t really know.
With the help of the United Nations Refugee Agency, they finally traveled again, this time to the United States and this time on an airplane.
Wyandotte principal Mary Stewart heard Van’s story when she visited with Van before writing her recommendation letter for the Gates scholarship application.
She did some research of her own, looking back at his first records in the district. The extent of his first language test was the note of the questioner saying only, “Student did not understand.”
To fully see where he’d been, what he’d gone through and where he was now was “overwhelming,” Stewart said.
Not only was he near the top of his class in school, his teachers and principals said, but his service to others was immense. He is constantly volunteering as an interpreter for people in Kansas City’s Chin-speaking community. He helps other students, lifts them out of the fear of American culture and models perseverance.
“Van reminds us that kindness and gratitude are important,” Stewart said. “He is that ray of light that what we’re doing here is worthwhile.”
The word from the Gates Millennium Scholars landed in his mailbox the last Saturday in April. The heavy white envelope was thick in his trembling hands. Such weight could only be good news.
“I usually use scissors to cut open mail,” he said. “But I tore it open.”
He called to his mother who came down the stairs to the front door.
“Scholarship ka hmuh,” he said. I got it.
Cuai raised her hands skyward. “Bawipa kai lawmtuk!” she cried. Thank you, God!
And she grabbed her son in her arms.
The news traveled fast. Phone call to phone call, text to text.
Maxwell was out at lunch with friends, she said, and she gasped and began to cry. They asked what was wrong.
So many of their students, even the best, leave for college with the odds still stacked against them. They scrap for whatever scholarships they can, fill out the exhaustive applications for financial aid, erect the best supports they can muster around them.
“I told them I just heard one of the best things you can hear as an educator,” she said.
She knew that this one — Van — who had been through so much, was going to be OK.
He will be heading off to Lawrence and the University of Kansas to study engineering and architecture, all his education bills paid.
He can’t go too far. His family needs him close to home. And besides, he said, KU is his “dream school.”
The plans for good housing for the world are shaping in his head. And he will still be close to receive the prayers of his mother, laid on his head as she does with Van’s older sister and brother-in-law in the home and their 1-year-old daughter who totters around the small house.
All of them safe.