When you become a refugee – a person who has escaped from their own country for political, religious, or economic reasons or because of a war - you lose not only a home. You feel a part of your identity falling off, while the strong bonds built with friends and families back home are also lost along the way. You are suddenly placed in a new environment with no one to rely on. Just imagine how much courage it takes to rebuild your life from scratch.

To commemorate the World Refugee Day on 20 June, the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) has produced a series of podcasts and articles, bringing together stories of refugees from Afghanistan, Thailand/Myanmar, Nepal/Bhutan, Haiti and Rwanda.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 79.5 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them 26 million are refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18.  Almost 50 per cent of all school age refugee children are out of school and just 3 percent of refugee students are currently enrolled in higher education. The reasons for this scenario are closely related to the lack of emotional and financial support and often poorly designed government policies in host countries.

Higher education provides the refugees with opportunities to change their lives dramatically, which can be beneficial to both the refugees and their host communities in the long term. In this series, UNAI introduces the stories of Neh Meh, Dawood, Aliny, Lok Darjee and Donaldo, who have sought higher education as means to make their lives better.

“As a young child, I always had this fear that the Army back home would come down to our house and start shooting at us.”

Neh Meh, 25, spent her early childhood as a refugee in a camp located in north-west Thailand, near the border with Myanmar. Her parents fled the neighboring country Myanmar three decades ago, to escape from internal conflicts.

A small hut, with walls and floor made of bamboo and a roof covered by leaves. The small “house” inside the refugee camp, her parents and three siblings were all Neh Meh had in her life. “We had to constantly think about how we are going to survive each day, we had to worry about food, about money to buy our shoes (…) That was the hardest part of my life in a refugee camp”. Often told by her parents of the conflicts back in Myanmar, she found herself waking up in the middle of the night with fear that the family might get caught by the Army for fleeing from their country.

Despite the hardships, one thing Neh Meh did enjoy in her life was studying. It has been her firm belief since childhood that by getting well educated, she could “be free and independent” enough to support her family and contribute to the society. But inside the camp, educational resources were scarce.  Teachers didn’t have licenses, nor did they receive formal training. “We were so poorly taught”, she recalls.

Life took a dramatic turn when her family, owing to the organizations running the camp, was provided with an opportunity to move to the United States of America. “Finally, I’ll be able to study as much as I want!” It was impossible to hide her excitement. Her family successfully entered the United States under refugee status, and applied for permanent residency a year later. Neh Meh could feel her “new life” beginning at the age of 14.

Needless to say, a new environment brings new difficulties. Neh Meh had to learn English from zero, which took her four or five years to master. Being the oldest child and the only one fluent in English, she had the responsibility to help her parents and siblings to settle in the new environment. “My older sister is deaf, so she could not do anything for my family. My younger sister was too young, only 11 years old, and my brother was only 3 years old. I was the one who had to tell them how to ride the train, give them translations and everything like that”.

Did all these troubles make Neh Meh want to go back to Thailand or Myanmar? Definitely not; in the US she is currently pursuing education to her heart’s content. After years of studying and taking care of her family, she managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the College of Southern Idaho. She is about to go even further, by starting a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence at Brandeis University.  

Through higher education, Neh Meh not only hopes to “be free and independent”, but also wishes to find the best way to contribute to her hometown. She calls on other refugees around the world to grasp such opportunities toward higher education. “Do not be afraid of having a dream. Having dreams do not cost anything, but use your time to pursue that dream. Just learn as much as you can and accept who you are. It takes courage to accept our past as refugees and live for the future and the present as well. Your journey is very unique.”

To listen to her full story in English, click here.


We want to thank the University Alliance on Refugees and At-Risk Migrants (UARRM), the Student Voices for Refugees network and Rutgers University,  for their help with contacting Neh Meh for this series.