Three weeks before Christmas, on the coldest night of the year, they gathered in the basement of Mount View Presbyterian Church in north Omaha.
About 30 teenagers arrived by car pool to the temporary home of the Karen Christian Revival Church, eager to spend their Friday night practicing Christmas carols in their native language.
They were barely in their seats before a youth pastor stood at a microphone with an acoustic guitar and led them into the first song. Their voices, sweet and strong, filled the room.
All were outfitted in the stylish, school-to-mall gear of the average American teen, and yet everyone here had been led to this room by lives fraught with obstacles.
Every singing voice here had known violence, sickness, hunger and loss before arriving in the United States. All faced new challenges and struggles afterward.
One perhaps more than the others.
He sat in the back row, a senior at Benson High School with a kind face and easy laugh and a dream to one day return to his homeland as a teacher and missionary.
He was 6 the last time he saw his parents. He had followed his aunt to a refugee camp in Thailand, fleeing the violence against the Karen in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. His parents stayed behind.
At the camp he was given his new name: Sha Ka Paw, meaning “Star Shine.”
He was 12 when he followed his aunt to Omaha. He dropped into his first American classroom as a sixth-grade student who didn’t speak English.
Now, six years later, Sha Ka Paw is preparing to graduate from Benson this spring. A spot at Grace University waits for him. He spends much of his days and nights thinking about a long-shot scholarship, funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that would pay all of his college expenses.
“That’s the big one,” said Andrea Fresen, who mentors a group of Benson High School seniors through an after-school organization called College Possible. “The Gates is the scholarship of scholarships.”
The Gates, you might say, is Sha’s Moby Dick. He works on it daily. He sends messages about it to Fresen at all hours. The application process requires eight essays, the collection of which tells about the applicant’s life.
This was a problem at first. Sha excels at school, even as he continues to improve his English. If he seems shy, one teacher said, it’s because his English doesn’t always keep pace with his mind. Another teacher calls him “a light in my classroom.”
“I feel like if he was an English speaker, he would be talking to everyone and joking,” Fresen said.
But he was not used to spilling his life onto a page. He started the Gates application in October. The first draft of his personal statement was a dry, impersonal essay about his school work.
Start again, Fresen said. Tell your story. So he did.
He began: “What is the meaning of living a life when you do not have any hero that can save you from your trouble?”
And then he set out to answer his own question.
He told his version of a story becoming more familiar in Omaha, where the Karen number in the thousands. There are other Karen students at Benson. There’s even another one in Sha’s College Possible cohort.
Her name is Klee Shwe. She was an infant when her parents fled their Burmese village. She fell sick from what they now believe was bad food and water. She should have died.
“It was a miracle,” she said.
Her family lived in a crowded refugee camp for several years before moving to the United States. In a matter of months she said goodbye to her beloved grandmother and landed in a fifth-grade class without any idea what people around her were saying.
It can be difficult still, even as a senior ready to graduate, but Shwe’s parents remind her of the opportunities now available to her.
“For me, I don’t think I would be able to go through without my parents,” she said. “I don’t think I could live.”
She thinks about how Sha does it and returns to the same word again and again.
“He always stays positive,” she said. “Very positive.”
In his Gates essays, Sha wrote about the surprise he felt when he arrived in the refugee camp and was placed into foster care. He had few possessions. He went hungry a lot. When food appeared, adults and bigger kids often pushed him out of the way.
“Once a year parents or relatives would come to visit their kids in foster care and give them a present,” he wrote, “but I always felt abandoned because I never received anything or any visits from any person.”
He wrote about arriving in Omaha, living with another aunt for a few years before he and his older brother got their own apartment.
He wrote about things he doesn’t say out loud, like how much he misses his parents and wishes to live with them again.
“I believe the purpose of my life is to use my compassion I have for others,” he wrote. “Hardship experience is what makes us realize the world around us, and character is our best leadership.”
He rises as early as 5 a.m. to a quiet apartment and studies until he leaves for school. He may stay until the evening, attending either a College Possible session or a leadership club meeting. He takes the bus or walks home. Puts dinner on the table for himself and his brother.
He studies until 9 p.m. and takes a break to read his Bible.
There’s a particular passage he likes, 1 Timothy 4:12. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”
Then he studies some more until 11 p.m. and goes to sleep.
The next morning, it begins again.
It began like that a few Fridays ago. That night, he arrived at church and took a seat in the back row at caroling practice, recalling the good memories from his six years in the refugee camp. Each year around Christmas, he’d join a group of 20 or so others and roam from place to place, singing. They’d lost a lot, but there was Christmas, and they sang.
He sang now, his favorite of this year’s carols.
“Praise to the Lord, for He has given us his only son. He (was) born in Bethlehem in the lowest place. Come and give him the glory ... Come and give him praise.”
He sang knowing that they would take these carols from home to home the following week and that on Christmas Eve there would be a grand celebration with music and food and people all around.
He sang knowing the morning after that, on Christmas Day, he’ll rise to his quiet apartment and work on his Gates essays.