At 17, Doi Bu Marip came to Everett seeking refuge from the Burmese civil war. Marip, now 23, is from Kachin State in northern Burma, also known as Myanmar. Her Kachin family was caught up in the conflict between independence fighters and the Burmese military.
“In Burma, we don't have democracy,” Marip said. “It's not a safe place.”
In her early teens, she fled to Malaysia. She was separated from her family. To get by on her own, Marip worked illegally in a Japanese restaurant and lived in an apartment crowded with others.
“It's very dangerous to live there,” she said.
Marip had no immigration documents. She narrowly escaped when authorities raided the apartment to expel foreigners. She hid under a bed as her roommates were arrested. An official started to lift the bed she was under but dropped it before discovering her. The others were jailed and held in deplorable conditions.
“God saved me because I was praying so hard,” Marip said.
Not long after, she got out of the country through the United Nations' refugee program. She'd waited more than two years to start a new life.
Marip arrived in the U.S. in the nick of time. Just weeks before her 18th birthday deemed her ineligible, Lutheran Community Services Northwest's program for refugee children took her in.
On Friday, the nonprofit celebrated World Refugee Day. Lutheran finds foster parents for children who were forced to flee their countries due to war, violence, persecution, discrimination or fear.
“Our program exists to create a safe haven,” Program Manager Molly Daggett said. “These are kids who don't have family and really need those connections.”
Lutheran has 50 refugees placed in homes around Snohomish and King counties. Daggett said the program is currently limited by a shortage in the number of families willing to help these young people bounce back from traumatic situations.
“There's an incredible joy of seeing the transformation,” she said. “It really shatters myths about foster children.”
Adriana Gallagher, of Everett, took Marip into her home in 2008.
“It was intuitively the right thing to do,” Gallagher, 49, said. “I just decided to do it. There was no real thought behind it.”
Gallagher teaches English as a second language at Everett Community College. She does not have her own children. Raising a teenage girl was a challenge. Marip had become independant, living on her own before being placed in foster care.
“You're parenting someone else's child,” Gallagher said. “It was really hard.”
At first, technology and modern household appliances were overwhelming to Marip. She found herself isolated by the language barrier. Though she spoke some English upon arrival, she was often unable to express more complicated thoughts and ideas. She took classes at night to improve.
There were also cultural differences. Marip initially had trouble telling Gallagher how she felt. Marip opted for the silent treatment when she was angry or unhappy with her foster mother. In her culture, younger people do not voice disagreement with an elder.
“The greatest thing was learning to speak up,” she said. “That's not something you can adapt to so easily.”
Through Lutheran, Marip and Gallagher received counseling to better their communication. They were determined to stick together. Many foster children are moved to different homes.
The two shared some good times. They've traveled to the East Coast, taken camping trips and went on a cruise together.
But Marip's struggles didn't end at home. At 18, she enrolled as a freshman at Everett High School.
“I felt like the oldest person in class,” she said. “I hated high school.”
Due to the age difference, she later transferred to EvCC, where she earned her diploma in three years. She also started college there.
After Marip aged out of the foster program, she stayed with Gallagher. She got her first apartment in Everett last September.
“Her moving out was the same type of emotion a biological mom would have with her kid,” Gallagher said.
She was happy yet sad to see Marip go. Marip has since relocated to Bothell.
Though they butted heads, Gallagher said, she is grateful she had such an ambitious foster daughter.
“She's a driven girl,” Gallagher said. “She isn't going to work in a factory.”
Marip is studying at the University of Washington Bothell. She's also set to finish her associate degree in chemistry from EvCC at the end of this semester. She plans to continue at UW Bothell for a bachelor's degree in biochemistry.
Marip said she's getting a better education here than she would have at home. Burma's school system emphasizes the memorization of facts rather than learning.
“I want to become educated so I can lead my people,” Marip said. She has her sights set on becoming a dentist. She hopes to help other Burmese people adapt to American life by providing healthcare and encouraging education. In her native country, many lack access to quality medical treatment. Those who cannot afford schooling are excluded from education. In Burma, Marip said, it would have been difficult for her to pursue her chosen career path.
“There's more opportunities in the U.S.,” she said. “Everyone has those opportunities.”
Marip has not reconnected with her family. Katchin State is an undeveloped, agricultural area. There is little access to telephones and internet. She does stay in touch with her foster mother.
“You have these kids forever,” Gallager said. “You are their family.”
She has no doubt Marip will continue to succeed.
“I don't need to hope because I know what she's going to do,” Gallagher said. “I just hope she's happy in her new life.”
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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