Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
May the Fourth ... bring you to State of Sound! Get tickets now.

Keeping in touch with grandma, 8,000 miles away

A young male with the sides of his head shaved looks at the camera with a serious expression on his face.
Paul Calhoun
Htet Oo Wai, a Milwaukee High School of the Arts junior at the time of this photo.

As nations around the globe face an immigration crisis, there's a debate in the United States about how to handle the surge of refugees seeking safety from oppressive governments. Right now in Milwaukee, hundreds — if not thousands — of refugees already live here, including a large population of children and teenagers attending public schools around the city.

Together with Know Thyself, 88Nine presents the "We Are Here" Project — stories from high school students who have traveled the world, in some cases putting themselves directly in danger, searching for better lives here in Milwaukee.

When 16-year-old Htet Oo Wai arrived in the United States as a refugee a few years ago, like the rest of his family, he spoke only a few words in English.

But he learned the language quickly when he began his freshman year at Milwaukee High School of the Arts. Now, as he enters his junior year, he is joining the general population of students, leaving English as a Second Language classes behind.

Learning English was a bittersweet moment for him, however.  On one hand, reading and speaking the language surely helped him in his academics and future career prospects, but on the other, it represented his home culture fading away.

Born in Myanmar — a country torn apart by an ongoing internal conflict — Htet moved to the United States with his family in search of opportunity.  But when they left, they were not able to bring the extended family along. Htet's great grandma stayed behind, 8,000 miles away.

The only connection he had to her, and to his Burmese language and culture, were regular phone calls, one of which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Below, you'll also find a personal essay written by Htet:

Sky is blue, birds up high and many candles during the night. When it rains, it is like showering stars. As a child, I lived with my grandma and my aunt. My dad and my mom were never with me during the time. I was given birth in Myanmar (Burma) and name given by a monk. My name is Htet Oo Wai, but my full name is Htet Oo Wai Yan in Myanmar. My name has a meaning and it is wise owl.

My dad would visit me every month and bring about two rice bags each time he visits. My mom visits me also but not regularly because she is in another country and it is hard to enter and come back out of Myanmar during the time. When I get to the age of four my dad passed away. When I was a child, I like listening to stories and watch movies,and would take them seriously, so when my dad passed away, I thought he would come back to life just as when a character in a movie did.

I grew up in Yangon city and lived in a little town called Ton Oute Kla. People there talk and interact one another, with smile on their faces. A lot of people were not wealthy but everyone was humble and happy with what they have, and they even help out one another much as they could.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee
Related Content