A military coup halted her education. Now a Myanmar student is getting help from a Norwalker to stay on track

NORWALK — The children of Myanmar have not attended classes since early 2020, when the schools first closed due to the pandemic. Then in February, the military overthrew the democratically elected government and have kept the schools shut ever since.

“We woke up on Feb. 1 and all the telephone towers were down. We had no connection with the world. That was so terrifying,” said May, a 19-year-old Myanmar citizen who boarded her first flight out of the country this week to attend college in New Hampshire.

May, whose last name is being withheld due to safety concerns, is currently staying with Norwalk resident Emily Kelting until she starts school next week at Southern New Hampshire University. She was in her first year of university in Myanmar studying psychology when the schools initially shut down.

A degree in psychology is still the goal for May, who dreams of becoming a therapist and bringing greater mental health services to her home country. Mental and behavioral health services are severely lacking in Myanmar, she said, and May wants to give her people, especially children and teens, someone to trust with their feelings.

“I want them to experience things like me, coming to the Americas and experience things that they’ve never. I just want to change something, the things that they need in my country. I want them to have an open mind,” May said. “That’s why I have dreams of becoming a therapist. There is so many depressed kids.”

May described life before COVID and the coup as “so beautiful” living in the city of Yangon. Under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, communication was much more open and walking the streets, even after dark, was safe, she said.

Under military rule, May must cover up before going outside and communication is limited to mostly email with a few other messaging apps. Facebook and its family of apps have been banned.

Even going out during the day is dangerous, she said, especially for women who May said are sexually harassed by the male soldiers. Her mother, Soe, does not allow May to work outside the home for fear of her safety.

Protests of the coup began a few days after military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing took power and detained Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the National League for Democracy, according to May. The protests began peacefully, with protesters gave the soldiers flowers, food and water as they tried to convince them to stop and join the people.

On Feb. 19, a 19-year-old female protester was shot in the head as police tried to disperse the protesters, according to a BBC report. Police denied using lethal force, but doctors told the BBC that two other protesters were struck by live rounds.

May said the protests then became more violent, with the opposition forces “trying to shoot with the guns or smoke.” Students and teenagers “who are the futures of the country” were being killed, arrested or harassed. The protests continued even as a second wave of COVID hit the country.

“We can’t go outside, but we still go, some teenagers go and do protesting. This is stupid, during the COVID time, it’s not safe to do the protest, but they just wanted democracy,” May said.

Kelting made the connection with May’s family in January 2020 when she traveled to Myanmar on a photography tour. May’s mother operated the tour company and the two became fast friends, staying in touch after Kelting returned home. As conditions worsened in Myanmar, Kelting raised money to help Soe and her family since tourism in the country had dried up.

Kelting then worked to find a way to get them out of the country. Immigration wasn’t an option, but Soe also wanted to study in America so they started looking into student visas. To obtain a student visa, Soe and May needed to be accepted into a U.S. college or university. Kelting looked at 30 colleges before learning about Southern New Hampshire and its international team.

Soe had her interview for the visa on Sept. 23, but Kelting said she was denied. May’s visa was approved, but she was reluctant to leave her family, including her 14-year-old sister Hsu behind. She had never lived without her mother and had never been on an airplane before, she said. But Soe convinced her daughter to take advantage of the opportunity.

“She’s been a role model for me. She was divorced and took care of me and my sister. That was wonderful,” May said.

Kelting plans to help Soe again in the spring in a second attempt to apply for a student visa. May said her mother loves business and will likely pursue a degree in marketing or management.

May’s flight touched down at John F. Kennedy Airport International on Tuesday, ending a day and half of travel. Due to flight restrictions, May had to fly from Yangon to Malaysia, where she had an 11-hour layover before her flight to Dubai. The flight from there to New York was another 12 hours.

“I’m lucky I got here, thanks to Emily. She’s a very amazing person,” May said.

In the first two days, May said she has taken a walk on the beach, enjoyed a taco and admired the clean streets. She’s also looking forward to a trip to New York City. She said her greatest hope is to take what she learns in America and bring it back home to change her country.

“I’m doing this for my country,” May said.

Southern New Hampshire University extended a full tuition scholarship to May, according to Kelting, adding she is helping pay for room and board and any additional donations are appreciated.

emily.morgan@hearstmediact.com