A 'Higher Expectation' Was Part Of One Refugee's Journey From Myanmar To Colorado

Jun 8, 2015

Htoo Ler Moo, middle, with his parents at a scholarship award ceremony in Delta, Colo. He's the first person in his family to attend college.
Credit Laura Palmisano / KVNF

Htoo Ler Moo was 7 years old when his family arrived in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Before going to the camp, his family lived in a tiny village in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where his parents worked in the fields.

In their village, they didn’t have electricity or running water. Htoo Ler Moo says they were safe until the soldiers came.


"When the Burmese came you can’t protect [yourself]," he says.  "You just have to run away. And if they catch you, they kill you or when they get to your village they burn down your house. When the Burmese soldiers came you just have to run." 

So, that’s what they did. Htoo Ler Moo and his mother, father and siblings abandoned their home and fled to a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand. 

Conditions in the camp were crowded and on cold nights it was hard to stay warm.

If they catch you, they kill you or when they get to your village they burn down your house. When the Burmese soldiers came you just have to run.

"We just had like four walls so we just lived in the living room," he says. "We slept there [and] we ate there." 

Htoo Ler Moo has five brothers and one sister. His family slept on the floor of their one-room shelter together.

However, life in the camp provided more opportunity. Htoo Ler Moo was able to go to school for the first time.

"Back in the refugee camp, we had school," he says. "I went to school there to study some English, a little, and Karen so I could read and write in my language."

They lived in the camp for seven years before they were able to come to the United States as refugees.

"My mom [wanted] to come to Colorado because my uncle was living in Denver," he says.

So in 2010, they boarded their first plane ever…and even took two more to get to Colorado.

Htoo Ler Moo says getting use to life in another country and a big city with modern conveniences was challenging.

His family didn’t know the language or even how to turn on the stove.

"My mom was scared to cook," he says as he recalls his first days in the U.S. 

Htoo Ler Moo says on his first day of school in Colorado he only knew basic words like yes, no and hello.

"I just go like no talking, just quiet," he says. "I just go into school and if people talked to me I just said ‘no English’."

After two years of living in the Denver area, his parents wanted a change.

His father heard from fellow Karen that there was agricultural work in western Colorado. So he moved his family to the small city of Delta.

Htoo Ler Moo had always that higher expectation of himself to reach out more and do more.

 Htoo Ler Moo was a sophomore when he started at the local high school.

Mayra Prieto was his ESL classroom aid.

"He is actually one of my favorite people to be around," she says. "He’s a really bright student who always smiles and always is happy. He just seems like the person that is going to go far in life and he’s willing to study hard, work hard to achieve that."

Prieto says Htoo Ler Moo opened up in Delta. He joined the track and soccer team and was an honor student.

Prieto also taught Htoo Ler Moo’s older brothers. She says he has more academic drive than they did.

"I just [saw] that Htoo Ler Moo had always that higher expectation of himself to reach out more and do more," she says.  

And he’s going to college this fall, to Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado.

The Karen students see an unlimited future because their parents have put them in a position where they can dream big dreams.

It’s a big step for Htoo Ler Moo and his family. He’ll be the first person in his family to go to college.

His mother has only an elementary education and his father didn’t go to school.

"I think they really value their education and the opportunities to move on," says Pastor James Connelly, who works with the Karen population in Delta.

"The Karen students see an unlimited future because their parents have put them in a position where they can dream big dreams," Connelly says. "They see because they have language skills now and they understand they can become doctors or teachers, whatever they want to do." 

Htoo Ler Moo’s first year of tuition and board will be free. It’s covered by a federal program that helps the children of migrant families. He also received a small scholarship from a local organization that assists migrants.

"I’m excited to [get] a degree," he says. "I will study English." 

Htoo Ler Moo is already planning for what comes after college.

"After that, when I have a good English level, I will be a teacher," he says. "I will be a good teacher and I will plan to go back to my country and teach others."

He says it’s important that he doesn’t forget where he came from and the people who still need help.

This story is the first in an ongoing KVNF series about the Karen refugee community in Delta. The series is part of a reporting project for the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s 2015 fellowship on immigrant families.