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‘If I Can Do it, You Can Do It’

Students Celebrate Immigrant and Refugee Role Models

Dressed in red, resemblant of flaming hot sauce, Bowen Elementary fifth-grader Yoe Shi Yar played David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who founded Huy Fong Foods, Inc.

“I was born in 1945 in Soc Trang, Vietnam. I am 72 years old. I speak Vietnamese. I have the best job in the world: making hot sauce!” Yoe Shi-as-Tran said, enthusiasm evident in his smile. “I immigrated to the United States in 1979 after the Vietnam War.”

Yoe Shi continued his first-person story of Tran, the entrepreneur who created a Sriracha sauce now known around the world for the rooster image on the bottle.

Places of Refuge is a series focusing on refugee students and their journeys, their new lives and hopes for a future in West Michigan, and the many ways schools and community organizations are working to meet their needs.

Yoe Shi, who moved to the U.S. from Thailand at age 6, and 16 other immigrant and refugee elementary students from Kentwood Public Schools, emulated successful business owners, politicians, judges and entertainers during the recent iLEAD Student Wax Museum Exhibition at the East Kentwood Freshman Campus. Students pretended to be wax figures, coming to life for visitors.

The students, who attend several elementary schools, spent three months and many hours on the after-school research project, which was focused on narratives and experiences of American figures who come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

In doing so, they learned about possibilities and the potential to build on the strengths of heritage, culture and language in their own lives, said Glenwood Elementary ELL teacher Amina Mohamed.

Thaw Kyar Eh presents on Tin Moe, a Burmese poet and teacher

Empowering Through Role Models

Mohamed started iLEAD, which stands for Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, Activism and Dialogue.The students made up the program’s first cohort.

“iLEAD is specifically focused on centering the narratives of refugees and immigrants, and bringing awareness to how refugees and immigrants are an important fabric in American culture, and the impact they have had here in America,” Mohamed said. “I think many people don’t realize a lot of the famous people we see on TV do come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.”

She said she wants to provide students with role models, through examples of those who have embraced opportunities and overcome challenges. She knows the immigrant experience personally: She grew up in the United Arab Emirates, her mother is from Kenya and her father is from Somalia.

“My goal is to have the students feel empowered to know they should be proud of their culture, heritage and language, and not view those things as a deficiency,” she said. “They are things to be proud of and to build on. Just because they come from a different country or their parents come from a different country does not mean they are not Americans.”

Mulonge Kalumbula, Grand Rapids Public Schools curriculum supervisor, introduces Bowen Elementary fifth-grader Yoe Shi Yar as a winner of the presentations

‘I Love All of Them’

Meadowlawn fifth-grader Siyani Mahadevan researched rapper/producer/activist Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, or “M.I.A.” “She’s a singer and artist and she really worked hard,” Siyani said. “She had a song on the Billboard Hot 100.” Like M.I.A, Siyani is Sri Lankan.

“We have to work really hard too, to become good at something,” said Siyani, who hopes to become a doctor when she grows up.

Students presented their projects — including facts and photos of the immigrants they portrayed — to judges who are successful immigrants and refugees themselves: Leela Dhakal, a Bhutanese business owner; Anh Tran, owner of Liaison Linguistics in Kentwood; Mulonge Kalumbula, Grand Rapids Public Schools curriculum supervisor; and Sau’l Ulloa, West Michigan Works! refugee career counselor.

“I’m very surprised the students put this many hours of research into this,” said Tran, a refugee from Vietnam whose translation businesses serves 120 languages. “I love all of them.”

Her advice to the students: “Study hard and do not let anything deter you, because America is the land of opportunity. If somebody pushes you down, get back up again.

“If I can do it, you can do it.”


Famous Refugees



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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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