Ni Lar Way is at the top of her class at Bishop Maginn High School and has accepted a full scholarship to study nursing at Russell Sage College in Albany,
Ni Lar Way is at the top of her class at Bishop Maginn High School and has accepted a full scholarship to study nursing at Russell Sage College in Albany,

You can’t imagine all the ways the world was stacked against Ni Lar Way.


The senior at Bishop Maginn was born in a Burmese refugee camp, because she is Karen, a minority of a minority in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Simply because of her ethnicity, she and her family were driven out of the country and forced to find a life somewhere … anywhere.


“We were put in the refugee camp and we were told to stay there,” the soft-spoken Ni Lar says. “Basically my life was there.”


The Karen people have been fighting the military-backed government since 1947. In the 1980s, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) continued to battle against the dictatorship and reports of villages being burned and genocide are as recent as 2010. Human trafficking, child labor and child soldiers were common up until 2012.


“We have students that still have scars,” said Sue Silverstein Gilligan, Maginn’s director of Campus Ministry and Community Service.


It is believed that up to 200,000 Karen have been displaced due to the long-running conflict, with most living in the refugee camps in Thailand. Mae La, the largest camp, has more than 50,000 refugees.  


Ni Lar traveled with her family, which now includes her parents and five other siblings, from the Mae La refugee camp on the Myanmar-Thailand border to the United States and settled in Albany. They came to the Capital Region to fix her younger sister’s heart condition, and to find a better life.


While Ni Lar and her friends were making their way in Albany, they were bullied in the public schools. One girl had her hair set on fire; lunch money was stolen.


It was a lot of strife and drama for anyone to deal with, let alone a growing teenager trying to learn English. But you would never notice it now. Ni Lar, whose name translates to precious stone, is always smiling, always upbeat, giving off a sense of calm and serenity that belies her age. Perhaps it comes from her deep-rooted spirituality and faith in God. She may be small in stature but her accomplishments have been immense.


Ni Lar, now 17, is poised to be the valedictorian at Maginn and has received a full scholarship to study nursing at Russell Sage College of Albany.


“She is (one of) our premier students, one of the best,” Maginn Principal Michael D. Tolan said. “She just speaks to the resilience of what we are all about. Maginn has always been a very diverse school and always has represented Albany well. The new wave of immigration and refugees has only added quality to our school.


"They are an absolute delight. They work hard ... They are the happiest; they just look forward. They really represent the school well."


Ni Lar, a member of Albany Karen Mission, a Seventh Day Adventist Church near Washington Park in Albany, is not alone, as the Karen community in Albany continues to grow. In fact, at Maginn alone - which Tolan referred to as the United Nations of Albany - there are about 35-40 Karen students spread throughout the varying grades. Maginn also has students from Pakistan, Iraq, Vietnam, China and Spain. Three of Ni Lar’s best friends, all Karen refugees, also joined her in talking about life at Maginn.


“(The kids) don’t notice (the diversity). They don’t care,” Silverstein-Gilligan said. “It is so much a part of who they are. It doesn’t even occur to them. In front of me, I could have a classroom with so many different parts of the world and nobody even notices that. It’s amazing and it changes them when they leave.”


With immigration such a divisive issue in this country and around the word, stories such as Ni Lar and the Karen people give people a window into someone else's world and puts a human face on the subject.


“This is her mission from God: to change the hearts of people who may not see immigrants in the way that they truly are,” Silverstein-Gilligan said. “I said to her, you can’t meet you and not love you. When all these people meet you, they will love you, and we will change hardened hearts. They are the most God-loving, deeply-rooted-in-faith spiritual children you would ever want to meet. Every action that they take is faith-based and God-based.”


Even with all the negative history associated with Myanmar, Ni Lar said she would not hesitate to return to her homeland, which elected its first non-military president in 2015 for the first time since 1962. But it is still struggling with ethnic cleansing, as some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced out of the country and subject to widespread abuses. Recently, rebel groups killed nine police officers in the western Rakhine State; while the country’s leaders vow to crush the rebels.


“I would love to go back and help because I know that some people don’t have the same opportunity as I do,” she said. “Even though I have this opportunity, I will never forget who I am and where I came from.”