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Native of Burma, local woman earns citizenship

Worthington resident Thien Thien Kai earned her U.S. citizenship earlier this month. She's been taking Adult Basic Education classes at the West Learning Center in Worthington since moving to the community five years ago. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Five years after leaving a refugee camp in Thailand and moving with her husband and son to southwest Minnesota, Thein Thein Kai is now celebrating a significant milestone — her U.S. citizenship.

Earlier this month, Kai took part in a small ceremony in Sioux Falls, S.D. — one of three people to earn her citizenship that day. A little larger celebration took place within her class at the West Learning Center, where Kai has taken Adult Basic Education and citizenship classes since moving to the community. She will continue to take ABE classes as she grows more confident and proficient in her English speaking skills.

Kai was born in Burma (now Myanmar), but relocated to a refugee camp in Thailand as a young girl with her parents and siblings. She is the youngest of seven children, with five sisters and one brother.

“I lived in a refugee camp a long time,” Kai shared. It was where she attended school in a small building, learning math skills as well as three languages — Karen, Burmese and English.

The camp was overflowing with refugees who fled their homeland of Burma due to fighting.

“There was no safety,” Kai said.

In the refugee camp, she felt safer, had food, education and a place to sleep, but her family had little freedom — not the liberty she has in this country.

“The refugee camps are not free. We could not go outside,” she said of the fencing that surrounded the camp. “We were afraid of the Thai police.

“In this country I feel like I’m free,” she said with a grin.

Joining Kai, her husband and son on their journey to Worthington were two of Kai’s siblings — a brother and a sister. A local church helped them get settled in the community.

“When I came to the United States, I … had to find where to buy food and clothing,” she said.

She and her siblings began taking classes at ABE shortly after their arrival, but Kai was the first to take her citizenship test. Her brother and sister continue to study.

Kai and her husband, Eh Moo Say, are parents to 8-year-old son, Thaw Thi Wah, who was born in the refugee camp in Thailand. Daughter Bway Psaw Paw, 5, was born shortly after they arrived in Worthington, and two years ago, son Lucas Say was born.

The kids are helping both of their parents become more fluent in English, Kai said with a grin. They were quick to learn the language by watching TV and going to school. For Kai, it’s been more of a challenge.

“I speak with my son in English,” she said proudly, adding that their two children who are in school speak Karen and English fluently.

Incidentally, while her children have fully immersed in the language, so too have they been immersed in American culture and food.

“I like cooking,” Kai said. “My son — the oldest one — he doesn’t like my food.”

Pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs are favorites among her kids, and while Kai has learned to prepare those foods, she doesn’t often eat them.

Kai attends classes at the West Learning Center up to three days per week. In order to take her citizenship test, she had to be able to read and write in English, and also needed to be able to do conversational English

“When I went to interview it was exciting,” she said. “It was very good.”

Kai said her husband can speak English only “a little bit.” He plans to begin his citizenship classes next year. Meanwhile, she hopes to take English classes for another two or three years.

Their family is happy to be living in Worthington.

“You’re near school, near hospital, near offices and downtown — near all of those,” she said.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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