Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Tabohra Ler inched to the edge of her desk and glanced at another student’s test. She copied her friend’s name at the top of her paper. The second-grader wasn’t intentionally trying to cheat. She couldn’t spell her own name. Since immigrating to the United States from Thailand in 2007, she’d only learned a few English words.
“I saw a few people from America once or twice,” says Tabohra, now a senior at Bryan Adams High School. “You were so cool when you knew the word ‘hello.’ I knew that word and my ABC’s. I thought I knew a lot of English back then.”
Tabohra was born in the Mae La refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Her parents had fled Myanmar to escape the ruling military junta known as The Generals. Widespread corruption and food shortages had led to protests that the government brutally suppressed.
“It was either go back to Myanmar where there’s a war and people could kill you or stay in a place where there’s no opportunity,” Tabohra says.
The 18-year-old lived in the refugee camp for seven years. She spent her days going to school, collecting fresh water and jumping rope with her friends. But food rations, a shortage of hygiene products and poor health care made the camp a tough place to be a kid.
When the United States opened immigration to refugees from Myanmar, her parents resettled in Dallas. It was an exciting, but confusing time, Tabohra says. After walking everywhere in the camp, bus rides made her carsick. She’d never before seen a bathtub, nor did she know how to work a toilet. When the family arrived at their apartment, they jumped on the beds, but they didn’t sleep on them. Mattresses were uncomfortable back then.
But the greatest adjustment was at school, where Tabohra struggled to read and write. In fourth grade, her teacher decided to hold her back.
“I was devastated because I was leaving all the friends I had known since second grade,” she says. “It was embarrassing. I felt like I failed. But it made me work harder.”
Tabohra went to school every day for the next four years, and by eighth grade, she finally felt comfortable in her studies. She joined a host of school clubs, including the volleyball team, which named her team captain. By the end of the year, teachers gave her the Student of the Year award.
“It was eye-opening. If you work hard, you get rewarded,” Tabohra says. “I never got those awards. Never. I only got the perfect attendance awards.”
The senior would be hard pressed to win the attendance award this year, but only because she’s gone so often for school activities. Her parents, who only attended school through ninth grade, encourage her to be involved and focus on her education. Tabohra was a second-team all-district player for the volleyball team and manager for the swim team. She is also involved in Destination Imagination, National Honor Society, yearbook and student council.
As a student council officer, she’ll have the honor of sitting onstage at graduation before attending college at Dallas Baptist University for nursing. Distinguished from her classmates in a white robe, it will be an achievement she promised her cousin she’d reach two years earlier.
“We went to a graduation, and I thought, ‘Wow, that could be me,’” Tabohra says. “My cousin said, ‘See those people in white? I want you to be there.’ So I’m proud to be an inspiration to my cousin and my siblings.”
Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.