In Her Footsteps

Three mothers from different countries fled violence to build new lives in Iowa. Their daughters are partners on their journey.

Grace Htee was around 4 years old when this photo was taken of the family in a Thai refugee camp. Read out about the family’s journey below.

Writer: Rachel Vogel-Quinn
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Moms have it rough. Our culture agrees on that much. But raising kids in an unfamiliar country? That’s another level of tough.

According to the American Immigration Council, 23.2 million female immigrants were living in the United States in 2018, making up 14% of the total female population. They are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have health insurance compared with U.S.-born women, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

But these facts don’t tell the full story. More than 1 in 4 female immigrants have earned a bachelor’s degree. Many more are working to fund their children’s education.

For these women, children are both a responsibility and a support system. Their daughters, especially, serve as interpreters, guides and confidantes.

The three mothers featured on the following pages come from different continents. They speak different languages, and they have differing levels of education and income.

What they have in common is a love for their daughters, the next generation of women who, with their mothers’ support, have set out on the road to the American Dream.

Flying Freely

Paw Kee Lar had never used a stove before she came to the United States. After years cooking over a fire in a Thai refugee camp, Paw didn’t know how to feed her five kids in their new home.

Fortunately, her oldest daughter, Grace Htee, was there to help figure it out. In the refugee camp, Grace had cared for her younger siblings, hauled water to their bamboo hut, and hand-washed clothes in freezing water. Only 15 when the family resettled in the U.S., she was the first to learn English. She started serving as an interpreter for her parents, helping them grocery shop, read mail, pay bills and open a bank account.

Paw, 50, and Grace, 28, are members of the Karen ethnic group, a matriarchal society from Myanmar. Facing decades of oppression and violence from the government, millions of Karen people fled to refugee camps in Thailand, including Paw and her husband, Htee Po Klo.

Although the family received food assistance in the camp, it was never enough to feed all seven of them. Grace was forced to sneak through the forest to earn money for food, defying the rule against leaving the camp. With other supplies scarce, she would use her pencil down to the nub. She often brought hungry friends home from school for her mother to feed.

“You’re a bird in a cage that cannot fly freely,” Grace says about growing up in the camp. “You have to wait for people to come rescue you or feed you.”

Through the U.N. Refugee Agency, the family got the chance to settle in Phoenix in 2007, then moved to Des Moines in 2013.

“When I come here, I cried almost every day because I didn’t know how to communicate to the schoolteachers,” says Paw, with Grace translating. “We didn’t know how to help our kids, and we didn’t understand how to read papers.”

With no formal education and limited English skills, Paw and her husband had trouble finding jobs. Now she works at a local medical manufacturing company, but she still struggles to communicate with her co-workers.

“Sometimes you will secretly cry in the bathroom just because you are burning inside,” says Paw, “because you don’t know the language.”

Paw always wanted to go to school herself but didn’t have the opportunity. So she focused on encouraging her kids’ education. “When you come here, people helped you,” Paw would tell her kids. “So one day you don’t have to lean on other people all the time. You get an education, and you can stand up stronger. And then you can help people who are in your place.”

Grace took that lesson to heart. She earned a degree in social work and human services from DMACC in 2018. She now works at EMBARC, an Iowa-based nonprofit supporting refugees and immigrants, particularly ethnic minorities from Myanmar. She also serves as vice president of the KYO-Karen Youth Organization in Iowa.

Last spring and summer, as Karen community members started falling ill with COVID-19, Grace began interpreting for patients and medical staff and setting up video calls for families with relatives in the hospital. While helping a community member with one such call, Grace caught the virus herself.

Pregnant with her first child, Grace was feverish and shivering for weeks. On the day her water broke, her husband was so sick with the virus he could barely drive her to the hospital. Due to visitor limitations, Grace had the baby without her husband or mother by her side. Her newborn son was whisked away to isolation before she could even see him. After two weeks, Grace’s son came home healthy.

Even with a newborn and a hectic job, Grace finds time to spend with her parents and siblings: hiking, camping, or just dancing and singing in the living room. When the kids were growing up, Paw often jumped in on their games. Now she asks them to record her singing and dancing. As a child, Paw wanted to be an actress; she says she might get there in her next life.

Grace, too, loves to sing and has entered local competitions. She often performs with her mother and sisters at home. In those moments, Paw knows she has achieved her dream. “In this life, in my own world,” Paw says with a smile, “I am an actress.”

Originally from Myanmar, Paw Kee Lar (left) and her daughter Grace Htee resettled in the United States in 2007. Grace’s son, Emmanuel Thawbert Htoo (his nickname is Manny), was born here last summer.

Raised Both Ways

Every evening, Samira Ikeljic, 50, and her daughter Mirela, 20, stay up until midnight in their Urbandale home, snacking on dried mangos and discussing the details of their lives in a mixture of Bosnian and English.

“I love my mom,” Mirela says. “We talk about a lot and get through a lot together. She’s like a best friend.”

Samira, who came to Des Moines as a refugee with her family in 1994 to escape the war in Bosnia, works for the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, where she helps coordinate services for refugees across the state. Mirela, a first-generation American, studies nursing at DMACC and works as a certified nursing assistant at an urgent care clinic.

Mirela uses her mother’s example as motivation during her long days: “When school gets tough and I just want to be done, I think, ‘No, my mom went through a war and finished school and got her degree. So I really have no excuse to drop out.’”

Samira grew up in a middle-class household in what was then Yugoslavia. She was in college when the Bosnian War broke out, which eventually killed 100,000 people and displaced another 2.2 million.

“It’s something we are still trying to explain to ourselves,” Samira says. “It’s very hard to explain to someone who has not faced something like that.”

In honor of her volunteer work during the war, Samira received a grant to finish her degree at the University of Missouri in Columbia. After graduating, she rejoined her parents and younger sister in Des Moines. Within two months, she was hired at the Bureau of Refugee Services, where she has spent 18 years. She married her husband, Saud, another Bosnian refugee, in 1998. Together they have two children, Mirela and a 14-year-old son, Maid.

“I feel bad sometimes because [my parents] went through all this stuff—war and resettlement and everything—and now they’re going through a pandemic,” Mirela says. “So what else are they going to have to go through in their lifetime?”

Because Samira spoke English when she arrived in the U.S., she adjusted to life here faster than her parents, who relied on Samira and her sister for help.

“It takes years and years, and you still don’t know everything,” Samira says. “You have to learn how everything functions, from going to the store to using health benefits to paying into retirement. The system is so different from what we used to have back home.”

For Samira, one of the biggest challenges was raising children in a new country. She calls the experience a “cultural confrontation.” Growing up, her family knew everyone in her neighborhood and school. In Iowa, she had to keep a close eye on her kids and their friends. She focused on setting limits and reinforcing values like family time, honest communication, and respect for other cultures.

“You try to raise them both ways,” Samira says. “I think [refugee and immigrant] parents need to be pretty flexible. I completely agree 100% that we need to keep our heritage and teach our children where they come from. … But we have to accept the positive sides of American culture.”

Mirela describes her mom as “open-minded” and “a people person.” From her mother’s stories over the years, Mirela has learned the importance of giving back to the community that welcomed her parents.

Samira takes great pride in her daughter’s accomplishments and eagerly shares photos with her colleagues, like Mirela’s first day wearing scrubs or their yard sign reading “A Health Care Hero Lives Here.”

Samira reflects: “Those are the moments that reinforce that ‘Well, I guess I’m doing something right in my life.’ ”

Samira Ikeljic and her daughter, Mirela, live in Urbandale. Samira came here in 1994 as a refugee of the Bosnian war.

Faith and Fortitude

When Rebeca Ibrahim’s three daughters were young, she sometimes couldn’t afford enough food for the family. She remembers one day when her youngest daughter, Ketego, opened the fridge and found it completely empty.

“I feel bad until now,” Rebeca says about that experience. “That never goes out of my mind.”

Rebeca, 52, is no stranger to hunger. Born and raised in what is now South Sudan, her family had to forage for food in the forest. She fled the country in 1999 due to civil war and arrived in the United States four years later.

“I was really tired and exhausted because I was a single mom,” Rebeca says of her first few years in the country. “That was really rough. … But I do my best, so life can go on.”

Without a car, Rebeca walked to her doctor’s appointments while pregnant with her middle daughter, Karina. Because she only spoke Arabic, she had to rely on others to translate for her. But she tried to stay optimistic for her daughters.

“It’s gonna be OK,” Rebeca recalls saying to them. “We are not going to live like this. Everything come hard, but everything going to be OK.”

Rebeca eventually started learning English, earned her driver’s license, became a citizen, and got a job in housekeeping with UnityPoint Health. She lives in Oakridge Neighborhood in Des Moines.

Although Rebeca had dreamed of attending school herself when she first came to this country, she had to focus on supporting her family. She works overtime, six days a week, so her daughters can attend private school, and she’s proud of their good grades.

“I want them to accomplish something,” Rebeca says. “I don’t want them to be like me, in housekeeping. I want them to be more than me. That’s why I work hard.”

Rebeca’s oldest daughter, Levo, is the first in her family to attend college, studying nursing at DMACC. Karina, 15, is a sophomore at Dowling Catholic and dreams of becoming a movie producer. She plays basketball and takes piano lessons. Ketego, 13, attends Holy Family and plays guitar.

Karina describes her mom with a litany of positive adjectives: strong, hardworking, brave and selfless. She says her mother supports her no matter what. When Karina wanted to be a pilot as a child, her mom spent her limited funds on books about planes.

“She’s like the best mom,” Karina says. “I just want her to be happy and proud.”

When her kids are finally grown and settled, Rebeca hopes she can save enough to visit her mother, sister and brother in South Sudan.

“I can’t quit,” she says, even though she worries about getting COVID-19 at work. “When I quit, everything goes off. So I just keep going.”

For now, Rebeca looks forward to Tuesdays, her day off, when she drives her daughters to lessons and cooks a Sudanese meal for dinner. In the car, she and the girls goof around and sing along to the radio.

“When I sing, they start laughing,” Rebeca says. “We got to laugh.”

Rebeca Ibrahim, originally from South Sudan, is raising three daughters in Des Moines. All three have attended private school, including Karina (shown here), a sophomore at Dowling Catholic.

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