SOUTH SALT LAKE — More than four years have passed since her good friend was found murdered — an only daughter gone at age 7, a lifetime too soon.
Every day after school, Nay Say Paw, now 14, is reminded of the long afternoons she and her sisters spent playing hide and seek or jumping rope with Hser Ner Moo, a refugee like themselves who found joy in life despite numerous challenges and hardships.
"I see her picture (hanging on the wall) in the community center where I go to get help with my homework," she says, "and I remember Hser Ner Moo's smile and her laugh. She was a lot of fun. Anyone who was with her was always happy. She was a special person."
Nay Say Paw, who, like her younger friend, grew up in a Thai refugee camp before immigrating to Salt Lake City, says she is inspired by Hser Ner Moo to do her best work in school and at home, hoping one day to go to college and have a family of her own.
"I know that Hser Ner Moo would like to see the study center that was put up in her memory," she says as she strolls across the parking lot at the South Parc Townhomes apartment complex to complete homework assignments in English and math. "She was a smart girl. She would have liked to have a place like this to come to after school."
When Hser Ner Moo's body was found March 31, 2008, in the basement of neighbor Esar Met, "it took a while to feel safe again — we were very scared," says Nay Say Paw. "But this is our home and we are moving ahead in her memory. Every day, my family is happy to be here."
Impressed by the dedication Nay Say Paw and her older sister, Hser Nay Paw, 15, have shown to their parents and refugee children who live at the South Parc apartments, volunteers at the Hser Ner Moo Community Center suggested I share the girls' story in Free Lunch.
Over plates of takeout Thai noodles and Mongolian beef, the sisters recall the long years they spent in a Thai refugee camp — the only home they knew before they came to Utah — after their parents fled violence in Burma.
"Me and my sisters and my brothers were all born in the camp," says Hser Nay Paw, a sophomore at Cottonwood High School who helps look after three younger siblings with Nay Say Paw while their parents work washing clothes at a laundry and sorting donations at Deseret Industries.
"It was worth it to our parents to spend 10 years there because they dreamed of coming to the United States to give us a better life and an education," she says. "They knew America would be better for our future than Thailand."
It's a common story at the South Parc apartments, where the majority of the tenants in 88 units are refugees who escaped war and hunger in their homelands. The complex is a mini United Nations with families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Bosnia, Myanmar, Mexico, Burundi and the Congo, all grateful for a new chance to pursue their dreams.
"Everybody looks out for each other, especially after what happened to Hser Ner Moo," says Nay Say Paw, who helps interpret for her parents and explains American customs since she has quickly adapted to her new life.
Her eyes sadden as she recalls the familiar soft knock she used to hear after school, when Hser Ner Moo would stop by to play.
Since that dark day when the knocking stopped, "we all miss her," she says, "but we'll never forget her." Every time she and her sister do their homework, "we see her picture and we smile."
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