Hamline News

The Htoo Sisters: From McVay to Hamline


Every student who enrolls at Hamline has their own way of arriving at the university, and most of their journeys begin with a college search in high school. But for sisters Dayliar and Zin Zin Htoo, they made their way to Hamline a little differently.

Both seniors, Dayliar is majoring in business management and Zin Zin is majoring in criminal justice. The sisters are Karen, an ethnic group that resides primarily in Karen State, otherwise known as the southern and southeastern sides of Burma, or Myanmar. The group makes up only seven percent of the total Burmese population. When the sisters were young, conflict broke out between the Burmese and Karen people, and Zin Zin was separated from her immediate family. For years, Zin Zin lived with her grandparents, while the rest of her family resided in a Thailand refugee camp. Luckily, Zin Zin was reunited with her family, and together, they traveled to America. The Htoo family found themselves in St. Paul, where a large number of Karen families had begun to form a community.

But while the sisters were finally together again, they still faced obstacles. Learning English was a challenge, and it was hard to communicate with their new classmates in school. While it took time to adjust, the sisters eventually became involved in Hamline’s McVay Youth Partnership, a place for middle and high school students where they can spend time with their friends creating art, music, drama, and can receive help with their homework. The McVay Youth Partnership is staffed by experienced and energetic McVay Fellows and McVay Interns, all of whom receive training and support from Hamline University. Through their involvement in the program and through it’s connection to Hamline, the Htoo sisters became the first McVay Fellows to receive scholarships to attend Hamline.

Their story is truly remarkable, and was one the Htoo sisters were willing to share, in their own words.

Moving from Myanmar to the United States

Dayliar: My parents told me that when I was about five-years-old and my sister Zin Zin was six, she was sent to the city to go to school. During that time, the Burmese soldiers attacked the village that I lived in. Things happened so quickly and became worse until my family had to escape to Thailand for safety, but had to leave my sister Zin Zin with her grandparents to go to school. My family was put into the refugee camp and we lived there for a couple years.

Zin Zin: When I was a kid at about four-years-old I was separated from my parents. They sent me to go to school in Burma (Myanmar). My parents and younger siblings lived in a small village in the jungle between Burma and Thailand called Maw Ta. I was sent away to live with my grandparents who are citizens from Burma so I could get an education because at our small village there were no schools and not many people are able to go to school. I am the oldest child of the family and so my parents wanted me to have an education so I left my hometown and left my parents to go to Burma. After I started my education I passed my grade each year without my family by my side…I started to miss my family more and more each day

Dayliar: While living in the refugee camp, my family had to face many difficulties and obstacles. We were living in a hut with many other families. The huts were pretty big and it was kind of like an apartment, except everything was made out of bamboo making walls from house to house were very thin. At the camp we didn’t have any electricity, so we had to use candles for light and charcoal to cook our food. We didn’t have a lot of food so we had to watch what we ate. We all had to share the best we could.

Even though my family struggled, there were families that were struggling even more than us. Some families made food and sold it to get money. They would have to wake up very early in the morning and start preparing the food so others could sell it. My family always bought food from them. Sometimes I feel like living in the refugee camp was like living in jail. I feel this way because we were only allowed to stay in the camp and couldn’t go out anywhere. There were Thai guards everywhere around us, which made it hard for us to go out.

I do want to say that even though it was difficult to live there when I think of it now, I was still happy because the community was great and everyone worked together. I was still a kid so I wasn’t fully aware of how bad our situation really was. My parent did all they could to keep me from knowing. I had happy childhood memories at the Thai refugee camp. But when I think of it now, it was very hard to live like that since I have everything I want or need now. Many people that were living in the camp wanted to come to America. Many families started to apply to come to America and were hoping that someone would sponsor them. When a family is sponsored by someone in America, they have to go take a picture, fill out an application, and do a physical check. My family had to do the same things and we passed. But before we left for America, my parents contacted my grandparents to ask for my sister Zin Zin back so she could come with us.

Zin Zin: When I was about eleven years old I heard news that my parents were going to go to the United States. They had contacted my uncle who I was living with and asked to send me back to them so that the whole family could go to the U.S. together. It was a long process for me to get to see my family again. We were separated for seven years until we met again. When I first met my family I was a bit nervous because I had no clue how they looked, but it turned out I had the right family and they were all nice to me and made me feel welcome. It was such an incredible feeling to see my family again. After staying in the refugee camp for six months we got qualified to come to the US.

Dayliar: We got called to come to St. Paul, Minnesota because there were a few Karen families living here and they wanted to form a community. They started recruiting more and more people to come to Saint Paul. My family was one of them and we came here with all the support and help from them. The first day we got here, we did not need to worry about anything. They prepared everything for us (apartment, clothing, foods and much more). They welcomed us with a big sign “WELCOME TO MINNESOTA.” It was very welcoming and felt good that there are people here to help and support my family.

Overcoming Obstacles

Zin Zin: The hardest thing I faced when I first came to the U.S. was learning the new language. Learning English was hard. Even though we were different ages, Dayliar and I were put into sixth grade together because at that time, neither of us could speak English. Also, trying to fit in with everyone was very hard for me to do because I had to find new friends and learn new ways of living. But after learning English for a few years, we had made new friends and became successful in our education.

Dayliar: I had to face people looking down at me because of my lack of knowledge and understanding. People didn’t want to be my friend because they thought I was stupid because I didn’t understand much English. After a while, I started to make new friends and I started to speak in English more. The more I spoke in English, the better I became at speaking it and the more English I knew, the more confident I became.

My sister and I started to help new Karen students that attended Cleveland Junior High because we knew where they were coming from and we wanted to help them the best we could. There were many new Karen kids that had just came from Thai refugee camps and didn’t understand a thing. My sister and I started to interpret for them and they went through the same process as we did.

McVay Program and Hamline University

Dayliar: One of my favorite memories as a McVay staff was cooking for the kids. It is very fun to do even though I don’t even cook at home. I like cooking at McVay because the kids like it and really enjoy helping out when it comes to cooking. I also like doing crafts with kids because I have to learn how to do it first before showing it to them. I will miss every part of McVay. Getting to know these kids was a blessing. They still bring joy into my life.

Hamline had played a huge role in my life by giving me the opportunity to attend here. Hamline has given me the knowledge and education that I needed. Hamline also helped me reach my goal of making it to graduation and making my parents proud. I will have to thank McVay for choosing me to attend Hamline and for the scholarship that was provided for my sister and me. It is a blessing.

Zin Zin: The McVay youth program was really helpful and it was a great resource for me when I was in high school. When I went to McVay, I was able to do my homework and meet new friends. I was also able to learn more English and improve my communication skills. McVay taught me to become a great leader and a great mentor to younger kids. I learned how to work in teams and improve my team work skills with planning and meetings.

Hamline University plays a really big role in my life because studying at Hamline provided me with a great education. I was able to learn how to become a professional. It has really prepared me for the the real world. I really learned the importance of making new friendships. I learned to trust myself and learned that I can do what I desire to do. Hamline helped me to reach my goal and my dreams.

Family Ties and Thanks

Dayliar: Even though my sister and I are like opposites, we are friends and we always help each other out with what we need. My sister is very supportive and she is a very strong and brave person. If I ever ask for help, she is there to help me. Also, my sister and I have been to the same school since middle school, high school, and now college. We faced many struggles together and helped each other out ever since we started school. As time passes, our sisterhood becomes stronger. My family is also very encouraging; they taught me to do what I want and to never give up.

Zin Zin: I would like to thank all who supported me throughout my career. I’d especially like to thank the McVay family for the scholarship the gave me. It really helped me and my family a lot, so thank you for your kind and loving hearts. Thank you, Jane Krentz for letting me work with you and with the McVay Youth Partnership. You’ve made me stronger and you made me trust in myself and become a better leader and a mentor. I would also like to thank Hamline University for providing me with a great education throughout my four years at Hamline. Thank you to my fiancé who walks along with me by my side to support me and for loving me for who I am. I would also like to thank my sister Dayliar for being my friend and my sister. I thank her for all the things we have done together to support each other and to give each other advice to reach our goals and dreams. Also, a big thank you to mom and dad for their love and their hard work to support me in my studies. With all my heart, I thank God for his amazing work and his amazing plan for me. I thank God for all the wonderful people in life that make me feel I have a reason to live and makes me think outside of the box when living in the U.S.