Three years ago, Xiong Pao Lor had never been to school. There was no formal education in the refugee camps and prisons where he spent much of his childhood. His math skills were limited to counting, basic addition and subtraction.
Three school years later, he is doing pre-calculus math.
He, his brother Chang, 17, and four cousins have thrown themselves into their education at Thomas Haney secondary with a passion that makes an impression on every teacher who comes across the family. They have two more siblings in elementary school.
They are Hmong people, born in a small village in the mountains of Laos.
During the Vietnam War, 60,000 Hmong soldiers fought with the U.S., disrupting North Vietnamese supply lines, and rescuing crashed pilots from the jungles.
When the U.S. army retreated from Vietnam in 1973, the Hmong were among those singled out for retribution by the victorious communist government, which publicly announced it would wipe them out.
The Hmong fled deep into the jungles, or into Thailand.
They are a people without a country.
“Our grandfathers were soldiers for the USA,” explains Xee (pronounced “see”) Lor.
The students’ understanding is that the Laotian government did not trust that the Hmong people would not fight against the regime in some future conflicts.
So they were not welcomed by the government in the country where they were born. They were rounded up into a refugee camp when Xee, now 19, was just 10 years old. There were thousands of people.
“Food was not enough,” she remembers. “A really big family lived in a small tent.
“It was so hard times.
“There was no safety,” remembers Xiong Pao. “There were lots of dangerous situations. You couldn’t walk around at night.”
They were eventually taken into Thailand, which was helping to resettle thousands of Hmong in the U.S.
However, the Thai government did an about-face on its policy toward its Hmong refugee population, and despite condemnation by the international community, thousands of asylum seekers were rounded up and sent back to Laos. Analysts say it was simply political fence-mending between Thailand and Laos.
The students and their families tried to stay in Thailand illegally, but the police were hunting the Hmong. For the students, their world was a Bangkok apartment.
“It was so hot, and we were just hiding,” remembers Xee.
After about a year in hiding, they were arrested and jailed. There were 158 Hmong refugees held in Nong Khai jail. If the refugee camp was bad, the jail was worse. They had no idea how long they would be held.
There were some occasional news reports about their plight, and one from that time said the people in the jail had lost hope, and had become suicidal.
“We had no sense of the future,” recalls Xiong Pao.
“It was just day to day,” adds Xee.
But governments were lobbying for the refugees to be resettled, and their story was being told in the media.
For the first two years in jail, the children received no education. Then through the International Organization for Migration, they had a teacher come to the prison for daily lessons. They started to learn English – reciting the alphabet and forming basic sentences.
Large portions of their childhoods were spent incarcerated. Chang remembers he was nine years old when he entered the prison, and 13 when their families finally got out.
They were sent back to Laos. But soon, with their refugee status acknowledged, Western countries said they would take the families. Some went to Australia. More families were welcomed into the U.S. They heard they would be going to Canada. Friends warned them that it would be really cold.
Finally, they were flown from Bangkok to Vancouver, their plane fare covered by the United Nations.
They arrived in November three years ago.
“It was amazing. It was the first time in our lives we ever saw anything like this,” remembered Xee.
Whether because of the time change, excitement, or both, they got no sleep that first night. They left their room and went for a walk, and in the wee hours of the morning saw their first snowfall.
“So amazing,” said Xee.
Thomas Haney was amazing to them also – huge and imposing, the Hmong students were sure they would get lost inside the school’s warren of hallways and classrooms.
They spoke almost no English. The first day of school was a terrifying experience.
They didn’t know it, but it was also daunting for the teachers at Thomas Haney.
Principal Sean Nosek had never in 20 years as an educator in the district encountered a group of students who had almost no education.
“It was a unique challenge,” he said. “I remember seeing these faces that looked afraid.”
He brainstormed with staff about the right approach.
ESL teacher Mark Biggar said the students were “almost pre-literate,” and had a long road ahead of them.
They first had to be taught how to read and write, and English is a tough language to learn.
“It takes years to get competency from nothing,” he said.
Simply communicating with them was the first barrier. He couldn’t locate Hmong language resource materials. They couldn’t find anybody nearby who spoke Hmong – there are some families who have located in Vancouver.
However, there was a girl at Thomas Haney who spoke Thai. In their travels, the students had picked up some of that language, which is similar to theirs. So the teachers spoke to the Thai student, who could act as a partial translator.
The teachers came up with a game plan. The Hmong kids couldn’t be allowed to be overwhelmed by core academic subjects. The idea was to get them into courses like band, sewing, mechanics, physical education – get them into the rhythm of the school, and let their English skills blossom as much through osmosis as by formal learning.
“A few teachers really stepped forward,” said Biggar, noting ESL teacher Jenny Godfrey also took their success on as a personal challenge.
“To see the way our staff and student body embraced them … it really is extraordinary,” said Nosek.
And the Hmong students were impressive.
“From my perspective, these kids are absolutely incredible to work with,” said Biggar. “All the teachers, when they start working with them, are amazed.”
“They value education in a way that kids who have gone to school their whole lives don’t. They don’t take it for granted.”
“It’s a new life for us,” said Xee. “We never thought we would have school, and it’s amazing.”
Xiong Pao wanted to publicly thank the government for bringing the families to Canada, and the teachers who have helped them. He’s been brilliant in math. He graduates this year, and his goal is to work for about two years, so he can save money for college.
“We are in the middle of a path. We still have lots of problems facing us,” he said. “Education is the way to the future.”
Xee wants to continue in post secondary, improve her English language skills, and would like to become a receptionist. She likes working with people.
Chang enjoys auto classes, and has his sight set on becoming a mechanic, once he is done school in two years.
“When you try, and you get the work done, it’s not that hard,” he said.
Coming from a country where even children who aren’t in refugee camps pay for their education, they appreciated Canada’s system.
“The best thing in Canada is even if you are poor, high school is still free,” said Xee.
She can see how a student can graduate, get a student loan for post-secondary schooling, and get the training they need.
“You can have your dream.”