Refugee Youth Voices: Educational Systems from Country to Country

By: Sue Mar

This is the sixth post in a the Refugee Youth Voices series that is uplifting the voices of young people with refugee- and immigrant-backgrounds.


  • This post is part of the Refugee Youth Voices blog series in partnership with the Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence (R_PEACE) coalition. 
  • Students from R_PEACE are sharing their experiences from having a refugee background and now being in the United States. 
  • Sue Mar talks about her experiences in the educational system across multiple countries and how the right teacher is important.
Image of three women in front of an R_Peace sign and what it stands for
Source: Jennifer Mann

My name is Sue Mar and I grew up in Burma, a country in Southeast Asia. I arrived in the United States when I was 14 years old. I want to share my experiences in educational systems across multiple countries.

Education is Important

In today’s society, many people believe that the education system is weak, and it is not relevant to teach the same way that we have been for 100 years. Despite this, everyone still agrees an education is essential and people need to learn to read and write. 

I believe it is very important to think for ourselves and understand our privileges. I have lived in three different countries, and all three countries had their own way of teaching the future leaders of the world.

School in Burma 

I went to school in Burma where teachers would offer free private tutoring. Their tutoring did not require critical thinking or any type of problem-solving skills. Just as some American teachers only teach directly from the book, their tests were based on being able to memorize things. 

My experience of the teachers in Burma is that they were not interested in students’ well-being. Instead, they were only concerned that students would pass their classes, which would make them look good as teachers. The focus was not about students’ understanding of the subject to be productive in the future. 

School in Karenni 

I also went to school at a Karenni Refugee Camp School. The teachers here would hit students more than give them a support system that increased their learning. We were learning what to do and say just so we would not get hit. 

The teachers never offered help, even when they knew that you were struggling with the language or had difficulty reading. Instead of giving a student emotional support when faced with challenges, they will discourage students to continue schooling when they were as young as eight years old. Going to school as a refugee was already hard enough, but it was worse when teachers were very negative.

School in America 

I was 14 years old when I got to the USA, and the American education system placed me in 9th grade. My educational background was not strong, and so being placed in ninth grade made it very difficult. I could only spell my name and my reading level at a kindergarten level. I did not understand the language and could not read. 

I graduated high school and that is because my school gave me a chance! Some teachers stayed 3 or 4 days after school to help students understand the homework, and some used their lunch break to provide extra tutoring. Since the support system was strong, I was able to get better at reading and writing. 

What is great about American teachers? They will:

  • Try to help if you ask for it, 
  • Try to understand your situation at home or school to ensure that the educational system is meeting your needs, 
  • Make sure students feel safe to come to school, and that students enjoy learning. 

They love to teach, and they are even happy to know that you want to learn more. I know that education is essential, but I now understand it is only effective when taught by the right individual.

Follow the Refugee Youth Voices blog series to read more from Sue Mar on understanding language and past experiences.

Please note that pseudonyms are being used to protect the student writers and their family’s safety as part of this Refugee Youth Voices blog series.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email [email protected]. Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Sue Mar is part of a group of college students from refugee-backgrounds that formed a coalition called R_PEACE (Refugees Pursuing Education And Community Excellence). R_PEACE creates content by using a critical literacy perspective, telling their counter-stories regarding access and entry into college, and disseminating information. The goal is to increase access to college for other refugees via three avenues: live speaking events in non-profit organizations serving refugees, a multilingual brochure, and through social media.