I received a text from the refugee school headmaster this morning that one of my students, Hang Thung Lia, was run over by a car and killed last night. It’s devastating news, though not surprising considering how dangerous their lives are here living in undocumented squalor, facing police harassment. The boy was only 14.
HTL was an on and off good student who would disappear from time to time. I was told he liked to drink and was a bit wild. I’ve been teaching him for a little over a year now and when I first had him in class, he was inattentive and listless. He had a chip on his shoulder and I frequently had to prod him to pay attention. But over time we made peace with each other, he came to life and flourished. In spite of his being the bad boy in the class, he was usually more advanced and excelled in pronunciation and writing. A few weeks ago, he won the Word of the Day review contest and gift bag, remembering more of the words I’ve introduced to them than all the other students. Two weeks ago, he was able to pronounce “with” properly before everyone else and sat at the front of the class smug for having done it.
One day when all the students seemed so glum, I asked him what was going on and he said he was “lovelorn.” I was taken aback! That was a pretty advanced word for him to use. He revealed his crushes to me and I came to realize that his bad boy exterior was just compensation for what I believe was a sad romantic, always hatching some unrequited love affair. His use of the word lovelorn was an apt description of himself.
I’ll miss this skinny little guy, his hunchbacked rockstar style, and his sense of humor. He loved to say, “Everybody dance now!” And we would all laugh every time he repeated it.
I’m meeting with his parents tomorrow morning to offer them a donation for his burial. I don’t know how I’m going to keep my composure. Half the time I’m in class I want to burst into tears as they are so terribly vulnerable, just sitting there year after year awaiting resettlement by the UNHCR — something that seems like an impossible proposition now with all the world’s refugee crises.
I’m so sorry he never got a guitar and that he was run over like a rat on the brutal streets of Kuala Lumpur — a poor, undocumented refugee from Myanmar whose death will go unnoticed by any official measures. But I will remember him always.
No one is dancing now, dear child.
P O S T S C R I P T
Chuan and I drove down to the Indian flower market in Chinatown (very KL) late last night and got a gorgeous bouquet of flowers for the family. With the generous help of some other teachers and friends, we raised 1,700 ringgit for them to help cover the funeral expenses, and so I went to the house to deliver the money and some flowers today. I met my students at the school and we walked to HTL’s apartment through squalid alleys, Joel happy to be carrying the bouquet and the other kids plugging their noses. Some baby came out of a store to see the flowery entourage going by and came up to us and hit the flowers. WTF? We got to their apartment building and walked up the unlighted staircase to the apartment to find tons of people’s shoes outside the door. We slipped off our shoes and went in.
The mother was distraught and walked about the apartment wailing and reciting his name. The sounds of her tired voice mixed with babies making various baby noises. I greeted the father (who is actually the stepdad replacing his deceased biological father) and handed him the envelopes of money. He burst into tears and hugged me. They didn’t speak any English so David the school headmaster translated to him the amount that we brought which was considerably more than a month’s salary for most people in his situation. Thank you to those who donated!!
We sat quietly on the floor of their apartment as they had not a lick of furniture and no air conditioning, so it was hot and uncomfortable. But there was a lot of love in the room — seems like every Burmese person in the neighborhood filed in and out to sit with the family. After an hour of sitting on the floor with my students, I suggested we go out for a walk and get some food before going to the memorial service at their local church. When I stood up, the mother came over and said, “Thank you teacher, thank you,” and held onto me and then hugged and petted the flowers and kissed the picture of her son. It was terribly sad and I just held her for what seemed like a long time while she wept. With all eyes on us, I felt somehow shy about letting loose my feelings which were that I wanted to wander around the house screaming with her.
The backstory that I got in very broken English is that HTL went out late that fateful night with some friends and got robbed by a gang of boys. They put up a fight and more guys showed up to fight and HTL and his friends scattered and HTL took off across a busy road and was struck down by a car that never stopped. A taxi stopped to help and when the police and ambulance arrived, HTL was dead.
Anyway, we went for lunch and a breath of hot fresh air. We had noodles with fish balls. I had one without the fish balls. I tried to talk to Joel a bit, which you’ll see in the video. After lunch we went to the church for the memorial which was packed with community members and a line of wreaths at the front. My small bouquet was put on a chair with “Saya David” written on it…which I think means Teacher David. This is all in the video.
The immediate family of HTL didn’t come to the memorial. I asked a few times why and didn’t get a satisfying answer until I put the words “too painful” in the headmaster’s mouth. “Yes, yes too painful,” he said shaking his head. Ahah, OK. I paid special attention to Joel because I thought he would be hit the hardest and he came without anyone to the day’s proceedings. But he showed almost no signs of grief for having lost his best friend. He was smiling in a way that belied the heaviness of the circumstance, but what does a 13 year old know about death? He is perhaps protected by his undeveloped mind and this will all mean more to him years from now.
Watch the video…
And here are a few photos I indelicately shot today…
Fellow teacher Cynthia sent me these photos. Below is Hang Thung Lia (in blue shirt) just last week in class at ISKL where Cynthia would invite them. He’s with his best buddy Joel…
Joel and HTL were inseparable in class, always holding each other and playing together like kittens. And here is what he wrote on Saturday in Cynthia’s class. You can click to enlarge…
Da pacem cordium. Give peace to every heart.