From a Refugee Camp to College: Asma’s Mission to Aid Refugees

Asma with her mother at MPS Foundation’s 2023 Celebration of Scholars event

Overcoming adversity, a select few not only triumph over obstacles but also make it their life’s mission to aid those who have confronted similar hardships. Asma Osman, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar in Southeast Asia, is one such remarkable person. Her journey has taken her from a Rakhine refugee camp to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she is now majoring in Social Work so she can help serve families like her own. This year, she received a scholarship from the MPS Foundation in recognition of her story and aspirations. 

In the past decade, there has been an influx of Rohingya to the United States, and Milwaukee is believed to host the largest population of Rohingya refugees in the country. This boost of immigration benefits the city culturally and also helps balance out what would otherwise be a city-wide population and talent decline. Like Asma, most of the refugee children who come to Milwaukee enroll in an MPS school. Her story is very much a Milwaukee story and embodies resilience, courage, and a commitment to building a brighter future for our city. 

But Asma says her drive to create change started in her home country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) where Rohingya people were a target of genocide and subject to human rights abuses. When her family’s house was attacked, they hid in a Buddhist temple where a monk helped them survive and escape to a refugee camp. They left in the middle of the night, transported in a truck that looked like it was carrying vegetables. Later, that monk was captured by authorities for helping the Rohingya people.

As a kid living in a refugee camp, Asma was responsible for gathering kindling to make a cooking fire as well as gathering and transporting fresh drinking water. At this time, education was hard for Asma’s family to prioritize due to its high cost. Her mother did domestic work and her father was an Imam at a mosque who also ran a cow ride taxi service. Both of Asma’s older brothers dropped out of school in 6th grade to work and help with their family, which was not uncommon.

Asma was around 9 or 10 when her family came to America – she is unsure of her exact age as birthdays aren’t celebrated in her culture. Upon arriving in Milwaukee, Asma enrolled in her first public school, the Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language, an MPS K-8 school known for their diverse immigrant population.  

While Asma and her family had successfully escaped genocide and gotten to America, their new life was still very challenging. There was a profound culture shock and an unfamiliarity with the English language, which was necessary for navigating this new world. Asma already knew two languages, but neither helped her communicate and every one of her subjects were in English. The struggle to understand deeply frustrated her, but one class kept her going — English as a Second Language (ESL). The Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language features an International Newcomer Center that matches 30–80 middle-school level students with two teachers and two specialists in ESL. The students come from countries all over the world.

Asma dedicated all her efforts to learning English, watching TV, and reading books in her free time to pick up the language. But her dedication wasn’t merely to her studies; she also wanted to help her family. Her parents struggled to understand the abundant paperwork that living in this new country required, such as school forms and W2s. While kids are much better at absorbing new languages than adults, many of those documents contained complex words and bureaucratic terms that didn’t come up in Asma’s middle school classes. Asma would bring some of these papers with her to her English tutoring sessions so that she could translate them for her parents. 

One thing about education in America started to stand out to Asma — how it is prioritized. There are both private and public school options, the second of which is free. Even the English tutoring center she went to outside of school was free. “School is not only funded for every kid, but it’s a requirement by law. If you don’t go to school for two or three days, they call you, they email you, and they call your parents. You’ve got to go to school, it’s a requirement, and that’s how I ended up,” says Osman. “If I was still back in Myanmar, I would probably end up getting married just for a better life.” Here, she has many more options than marriage for a brighter future. 

By the time she entered the Milwaukee High School of the Arts (as a violin major), Asma had mastered English enough to become a teaching assistant in her ESL class, continuing a burgeoning passion to help others transition to their new lives in America. Asma especially connected with the students in this class and their struggles. It was only a couple of years prior when she feared her inability to understand English would result in teasing. 

Asma always intended to continue her work of building bright futures for others by going to college and majoring in social work. However, the high cost of college seemed daunting. After her mother encouraged her to look for scholarship opportunities, Asma went to the Boys & Girls Club to seek scholarship advice, where she was encouraged to apply for the MPS Foundation Scholarship for Graduating Seniors. She did not expect to receive it, but she also knew she couldn’t get any scholarship without trying first.  

As it turned out, Asma Osman was one of 32 extraordinary MPS seniors who were awarded $150,000 in total scholarships in 2023. The awardees mirrored the unique diversity of Milwaukee, representing 13 of MPS’ high schools with 81% first-generation students and 87% students of color. Even though Asma was already determined to attend college, receiving the MPS Foundation scholarship was an added blessing. The money she received helps cover the cost of expensive textbooks and safe travel to and from school since she lives off campus. 

Asma enjoys her classes and friends and describes herself as an extrovert. In her free time, she paints, plays tennis, goes bowling at the UWM Union, and likes to check out Milwaukee’s various Halal food trucks. After college, Asma plans to be a social worker helping families adjust to a better life in America. She also intends to look out for her parents financially. 

Asma Osman’s journey from a Rohingya refugee camp to a scholarship recipient attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Her determination to overcome challenges, pursue education, and give back to her community reflects the values that the MPS Foundation stands for. 

This story is part of a series spotlighting individuals that the MPS Foundation had the honor of serving in 2023.

You can help us build more bright futures for students like Asma by giving to the MPS Foundation’s Year-End Fundraiser today. 

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