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Housekeeping job a stepping-stone to a better life for Burma refugee

Massey Award winner Niheli Tial
Niheli Tial

Burma (officially the Union of Myanmar) is the largest country in Southeast Asia, bordered by China and India to the north, Bangladesh to the west and Thailand to the east, with the Andaman Sea defining its southern boundary.

It is a land filled with Buddhist ruins, lush rice fields, golden pagodas and, for much of the past century, human misery.

For centuries, the country was ruled by kings, and in the 19th century, it was conquered and turned into a British colony. The fragile democracy that emerged upon its independence in 1948 was crushed by an army coup in 1962, the same year Nihlel Tial was born.

For the next 26 years, the Burma Socialist Programme Party held power by brutally crushing all opposition. But the slaying of a student in 1988 led to mass demonstrations on Aug. 8 – known as “8-8-88” in which hundreds of thousands of protesters marched, demanding that the military government be replaced by an elected civilian government. In response, soldiers fired on the crowds, killing thousands.

That same year, Tial graduated from Rangoon University and started work as a high school chemistry teacher. Two years later, she married a fellow teacher who was a political activist with the Chin League Party, the reform group that the military junta derecognized in 1990.

By 1997, his continued political activism forced Tial’s husband to flee to India to apply for political asylum. A year later, Tial joined him there with their three daughters and son.

Tial’s husband was not granted political asylum in the United States until nine years later. He arrived ahead of his family to figure out where they should settle. He searched the Internet, Tial said, and traveled from Seattle to San Diego to see the possibilities for himself.

In the end, he settled on Chapel Hill, Tial said, because his Internet research showed that it was not too big, the schools were very good and there was free bus service – an important consideration for a family without a car.

They arrived here as a family in February 2006. Everyone except Tial, a former high school chemistry teacher, is now a student.

This fall, her husband will begin his final year as an electrical engineering student at N.C. State. Their eldest daughter is a student at Durham Tech, and the other two daughters are students at East Chapel Hill High School. Their son is a seventh grader at Phillips Middle School.

For now, Tial is the family’s sole breadwinner as a housekeeper at the University.

It is a job she values dearly and does well – so well that students nominated her for a 2010 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

More than 80 students from the Joyner and Connor residence hall communities, five resident advisers, one young alumnus and a former Massey winner (also a housekeeper who emigrated from Burma) saw in Tial the same qualities meriting recognition: hard work, devotion and the kind of human warmth that can be spread with a simple smile.

She is more grateful for her job than any of the students could ever know, but it is only a stepping-stone on her long, steep climb to a better life.

When Tial was the age of her oldest daughter, she went off to Rangoon University to study chemistry so she could become a teacher.

Chancellor Holden Thorp pointed out to Tial that they had something in common. When he called her this spring to tell her she had won a Massey, he pointed out that he, too, had once been a chemistry teacher.

One day soon, after Tial’s husband finishes college and gets a job, it will be her turn to return to college – no longer as the family breadwinner, but as a student.

Even though she has learned English well enough to speak and understand it, it continues to be a struggle. That is why she is thinking of pursuing accounting where the language used is primarily numbers.

It will not be easy. But in this country, she knows it will be possible.

Originally published by University Gazette: May 26, 2010

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