RALEIGH — A few days before her graduation from Sanderson High School, Ha May Dar, 18, sat in the living room of her family’s North Raleigh apartment and recalled a time when she didn’t think she ever would go to school.
In those days, Dar would rise in the early morning darkness of a refugee camp in Thailand to begin her day of selling food in local villages. She was 11 or 12, and she had to work rather than going to class.
Each day, Dar traveled her route knowing that if the food her grandmother had made didn’t sell, her family would not be able to pay back the money they had borrowed from the store.
Her family had fled their home country of Burma and its civil war and arrived in the camp years before.
By working, Dar gave her three younger brothers the opportunity to attend classes, but it cost her the chance to do so. She never learned to read or write in Burmese, her native tongue.
Dar, who is warm and welcoming, told her story calmly and directly over sweetened coffee she had made and a plate of cakes.
“They asked me if I wanted to go to school or help the family. I decided that I would help them, so I let my three brothers go to school and I worked.”
“It was hard,” she said, and her voice rose ever-so-slightly higher on the final word.
Learning a new language
When Dar got a visa to come to the U.S. in 2008 with her grandmother, she finally was able to go to school. But she had no reference point to begin the work of learning a new language.
“You know nothing. It’s hard going to school every day and not knowing anything. You just sit, sit, sit,” she said.
At home, she would cry to her grandmother about how difficult it was to learn a new language and about the kids who laughed at her early attempts to speak English.
Dar kept working to master what she was learning in school though. She grew close to the teachers she trusted to look out for her and sought their advice. She read everything she could get her hands on and watched American TV shows to perfect her slang.
At home, she helped her grandmother navigate doctors appointments and prescription pickups. In high school, she picked up shifts at Cinnabon and Chick-fil-A and worked as many as 30 hours each week.
All the while, she endured a separation from her mother, stepfather and three younger brothers. Then, her mother died before the two could be reunited.
“It was very hard,” Dar said. “I just can’t imagine that for one last time I didn’t get to see my mom.”
Despite her grief and hardships, Dar kept looking for the bright moments: laughing with her cousins and friends at school, hiking in new places and welcoming her brothers to the U.S. just six months ago.
Jasmine Hart Lauer, a Sanderson English teacher who taught Dar in tenth-grade and has remained close to her, calls her “a gem.” Dar always has been sweet and hardworking, but in the last two years, she’s gained confidence and become more eager to speak up, Hart Lauer said.
Dar goes to Hart Lauer with questions about cars, colleges and work. As soon as Dar has an answer, she begins whatever needs to be done.
“She’s not praise-seeking at all,” Hart Lauer said. “She just does what she has to do, and she does it really, really well.”
Dar says that Hart Lauer and her other teachers have helped her immeasurably.
“They encourage me,” she said. “They say, ‘Don’t give up, you have to go to college. Go get more education.’”
Nothing to hide from
Dar plans to study nursing this fall at Wake Tech. She’s always been intrigued by a career in medicine because she wants to help people.
Earlier this year, Dar sat down to write an essay about perseverance for a scholarship contest to help her continue her education.
At first, she found it difficult to gather her ideas. She questioned whether she wanted to share such personal, emotional stories to illustrate just how much she knows about what it means to persevere.
“It was because I don’t really want to think about what it was like then. I don’t want to go back to a time like that,” she said.
But in the end, in clear, concise prose that won over the judges, she told her story. She’s glad she did.
“I feel like there’s nothing to hide from,” she said.
Barr: 919-836-4952; Twitter: @barrmsarah