MAGINN STUDENTS FROM MYANMAR and the Albany Diocese mingle: freshmen Bay Lar and Ywa Blumoo, sophomore Dominique Threatt, senior Taylor Blue Clarke and sophomores Chri and Paw Aye. (Kathleen Lamanna photo)
MAGINN STUDENTS FROM MYANMAR and the Albany Diocese mingle: freshmen Bay Lar and Ywa Blumoo, sophomore Dominique Threatt, senior Taylor Blue Clarke and sophomores Chri and Paw Aye. (Kathleen Lamanna photo)
Fourteen-year-old Ywa Blumoo's favorite subject in ninth grade is history.

"It's fun," he said. "You learn about old stuff."

The American history that Ywa is learning as a freshman at Bishop Maginn High School in Albany is all new to him: Ywa has only been in the United States for three years, having fled life in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Ywa is one of the 35 Karen refugee students from Myanmar who started school at Bishop Maginn last week. The students were brought to Maginn by Christopher Signor, principal, and John Harden, assistant director of student success and academic advising at Siena College in Loudonville.

Most of the students, who speak near-fluent English, came to the U.S. after fleeing to Thailand from Myanmar, also known as Burma. The group of refugees are part of an ethnic minority group called the Karen that the Burmese government, called the State Peace and Developmental Council, is attempting to eliminate through genocide, said Mr. Signor.

Team effort
Dr. Harden runs the Siena College Writing Partnership. The program is providing homework assistance and mentoring for the students from Myanmar, who originally attended Albany High School, as well as other students in need.

"For the past four or five years, I have matched a refugee student with a Siena writing student," said Dr. Harden. "After the decision had been made to move [Bishop Maginn High School to its new location,] I was thinking, 'Are we really looking at who lives in our neighborhood?'"

Dr. Harden, who is an alumnus of Bishop Maginn, believed that bringing refugees to Bishop Maginn with the support of his program would bring Catholic education back to its roots by helping those in need and creating a strong sense of community.

It was also a way to help some of the refugee students who were struggling with large class sizes and other social problems.

Three dozen
After Dr. Harden approached Mr. Signor about the idea, the school had a registration night for any interested Karen families.

"By the end of the night, we had 34 students -- 35, by the end of the week," Dr. Harden recalled.

For the Karen students to be able to attend Bishop Maginn, two new scholarship funds were created:

• the Albany Student Scholarship Fund, for children with high financial needs, which is supported by Maginn alumni, a local parish and private donors; and

• the Refugee Student Scholarship Fund, sponsored by Dr. Harden and the Siena program, which is specifically for Karen students. So far, the writing partnership has raised more than $10,000 for that fund to help with tuition, uniforms, school supplies and shoes.

Mr. Signor said there are about 1,000 refugees from Myanmar currently living in Albany. Many of them belong to the Albany Karen Seventh-Day Adventist Church, including the new Maginn students.

It's not unusual for non-Catholic students to attend Bishop Maginn, he told The Evangelist, noting: "We all came from a Judeo-Christian heritage. We're not speaking a totally foreign language to them" in religion classes.

At the annual diocesan schools liturgy, held last week at Albany's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (see photos on pages 1 and 28 of The Evangelist's print edition), "not all students [received] communion," Mr. Signor added. The Myanmar refugees were among those who simply went to the altar for a blessing.

Want to be here
"They will integrate perfectly into our Catholic school community, regardless of the fact that we have some theological differences," he noted. "These kids are good kids. They are hungry for education." With the help of their writing partnership mentors, all the refugee students at Bishop Maginn are on track for graduation, although Ywa admitted that "it's hard," since "all the subjects are [taught] in English." Sophomore Dominique Threatt said having the refugees as classmates "makes more variety. They're great." Dr. Harden is impressed with how respectful the students from Myanmar are, especially considering their hard background.

"Some of these students, their parents were slaves. We don't think slavery exists in the modern-day world," he said. "They are coming from an incredibly different worldview."

Taylor Blue Clarke, a senior, said the refugees are "accepted in class. I like to make them feel comfortable."

Although Blue is still trying to find out more about the culture of his new classmates, he knows one thing for sure at the small high school: "We are a family."

Bishop Maginn currently enrolls 133 students, so the Karen students comprise a quarter of the student body.

"It was amazing how quickly the student body opened up and accepted these kids," Mr. Signor told The Evangelist. "These are some of the neediest people in the community, [and they] want a high-quality education. How could we possibly turn our back on them?"