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THE LOOP FEATURE: Crossroads of Culture

Over the past two decades, Lewisville and LISD have become one of the nation’s largest hubs of Chin culture.

This feature was first seen in Lewisville ISD's quarterly magazine The Loop.

Eight thousand, five hundred and twenty-seven miles.

 There are few places on Earth with a longer commute to Lewisville High School than from Hakha, the capital of Burma’s Chin State. Yet, since 2007, hundreds of Chin students whose families fled religious persecution in Burma have entered the doors of LISD schools.

 The Chin, an ethnic group originating from the mountainous region of western Burma bordering India and Bangladesh, have been the target of oppression for decades. After a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected government in the 1960s, the predominantly Christian Chin have suffered imprisonment, extortion and forced labor among other human rights violations. As anti-Christian violence began escalating in the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Human Rights Watch estimates that the number of Chin refugees has ballooned to over 100,000, with many settling in India and Malaysia. Several thousand Chin have also immigrated to the United States, primarily in Indianapolis, Tulsa and Lewisville.

 The arrival of Chin families in Lewisville had been slow, but steady. Many came to the United States by way of Malaysian refugee camps, which proved to be a protracted and often dangerous process. The journey generally involved navigating treacherous jungles and mountains, usually under the cover of darkness. Much of it had to be made on foot, as relying on other means of transportation could be life-threatening.

 Par Hniang, who graduated from Lewisville High School in 2019, described having to be smuggled across the Malaysian border in a truck.

“They didn’t care who went in first, it was just about being efficient. I was one of the people they shoved in and these huge adults started sitting on me. I was only seven years old at the time, and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die.”

 Many Chin would find that reaching Malaysia provided little respite. Philip Cung, currently a senior at LHS, spent five years in Malaysia before his family was able to reach the United States in 2011. He described acts of terror committed towards himself and his mother.

 “We were not free,” he emphasized. “In Malaysia, we were illegal immigrants. Refugees. I think it was worse for us in Malaysia.”

 Once consistent refugee relations opened between the U.S. and Malaysia in 2006, many areas struggled to provide necessary resources to the incoming Chin. A majority of Chin families in DFW arrived without much of the promised support. Leaning on local church and municipal leadership, Lewisville Chin found themselves reliant on a community that knew very little of the culture, and even less of the language.

 Then, in 2007, everything changed.

 Becky Nelson, a member of Flower Mound First Baptist Church, received a call from her minister about supporting a neighboring church’s growing Chin population, which had doubled almost overnight. Nelson immediately obliged, pulling together resources donated by her congregation. She was determined to promote unity through the church, one of the few familiar settings for Chin in Lewisville.

 “They’ve been persecuted, so their biggest experience is fear,” said Nelson in a 2015 interview with the Dallas Morning News. “The only thing they trust is the church.”

 Andy Plunkett, one of Lewisville ISD’s Chief of Schools, and former principal of Lewisville High School’s Killough 9th and 10th Grade Campus, recalls the arrival of the first Chin students to be enrolled in LISD.

 “Usually schools know when refugees are going to be coming and are prepared. Becky Nelson was [at Killough] one morning with three or four students. The next day, she was there with three or four more students. Then the next day – sure enough – she was there with four more and we said ‘how many more do you think are coming?’”  

 “At first she thought there was only going to be 80 or 90 – by 2009 I think we had 2,000.”

 Together, Nelson and Plunkett led the charge to provide the burgeoning Chin population with everything necessary to succeed in Lewisville. According to Plunkett, Nelson would routinely drive to the airport to pick up families, drive them back into town, then help them get their children enrolled in school. In order to assist families in completing enrollment paperwork, Nelson worked with Chin pastors to translate as they were one of the few available sources for overcoming language barriers. District ESL teachers quickly rose to the occasion of learning Chin in order to effectively teach new students.

 Tluang Hmung, a 2014 graduate of LHS, was among the first Chin students to enroll in LISD. Hmung, whose family endured a trek through the jungle of Southeast Asia, forced to travel by night before reaching relative safety in Malaysia, recalls his first days at Vickery Elementary School.

 “At the time I didn’t speak any English or have any friends. At first, school was very hard. It was very hard and I remember crying my first day because I didn’t know what was going on.”

 “But then there was this lady – her name was Ms. Ferguson – the next day she came to class and they told me to go with her. She started teaching me English, and that really helped me get through school. She made a big impact in my life at the time.”

 Hniang shared a similar experience.

 “It was just so unfamiliar. I was just questioning my existence. Lakeland Elementary was the first school that I went to and the people there were the most amazing that I met. Ms. Mary was the sweetest. She would check with us all the time, ask if we needed uniforms, things like that.”

 “Ms. Statler, she was my third grade teacher. When I moved to Creekside and she retired, she would come and eat lunch with me, just to make sure I was okay and not lonely at the new school. I think they really helped shape me to care about people and to give back as well.”

By 2011, it became clear that Lewisville was becoming a hub of Chin culture. Moved by the stories of Chin students and the drive they showed in the classroom in the face of adversity, Plunkett decided it was time to honor their commitment to education.

 “By the time we opened Harmon in 2011, the kids we had in ninth grade were already in AP classes. The older students were scoring really well on the SAT and the ACT and earning scholarships. We said ‘we’ve got to celebrate the fact that, where they came from, the obstacles they have overcome in such a short period of time, that needs to be celebrated.’”

Chin students unanimously agreed to hold the celebration in conjunction with Chin National Day, which occurs annually on February 20 and honors the date the Chin people voted to become a democratic state in 1948.

 Since 2011, what became known as the LISD Chin Cultural Festival has occurred annually and celebrates traditional Chin song, dance, fashion and food. What began as a small way to recognize a group of LISD students quickly transformed into a community-wide event that is now attended by hundreds each year. For current Chin student leadership, it also represents a way to both hold onto their culture and share it with future generations.

 Bawi Sung, a senior at LHS and current president of the Chin Club was just three years old when her family escaped Burma in 2007. After spending over a decade in the United States, Sung felt disconnected from and, at times, even resentful towards her Chin background.

 “I got teased a lot,” she said, describing her early experience living in Michigan. “I got teased for looking Asian. I felt like I didn’t belong there.”

 Her attitude changed when she took a return trip to Burma and became heavily involved with Chin Club and the Chin Festival.

“Before high school I was never as involved in the Chin community. After going back to Burma and then coming back here, I realized that so many people wanted to hear my story. It made me rethink, like, ‘Bawi, you have a community that’s willing to embrace your culture that you don’t even want to embrace.’”

 And embrace it she has. At the 2022 Chin Festival, Sung gave an impassioned speech about the current unrest and continued violence in Burma, and the need for communities to not just hear, but understand the story of the Chin. Her hope is that by sustaining and growing the Chin Festival, more people will lift up the voice of the Chin.

 The Chin Festival has also helped Philip Cung reconnect with his heritage.

 “Sometimes I just forget about my culture or traditions, but the Chin Festival helped remind me who I am. It really helps us remember who we are and sharing with other people, other teachers, other students, it’s very special for us.”

 Rosie Pui, a junior at LHS and Chin Club vice president, echoed the impact that the Chin Festival has had.

 “I think it’s so amazing that we get to be blessed with something like this and to have people who care about us so much. We’re so blessed to have a community full of so many Chin people who we can embrace our culture with, and so many people who are not Chin who want to embrace our culture with us. I think that’s so important. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”

As of the writing of this piece, graduating Chin seniors have been awarded $50,000 in scholarships and make up a significant percentage of Lewisville High School’s top academic ranks. A scholarship named in the honor of Becky Nelson was created in 2017 and awards $2,000 to selected Chin students.

 LISD would like to thank the faculty, staff and community members who have been a part of creating a welcoming, nurturing environment that has allowed for Chin students and families to thrive in Lewisville.

The Loop is a quarterly magazine from the Lewisville Independent School District, showcasing the latest stories, photographs and achievements throughout Lewisville ISD schools. Click here to read previous issues.