A family portrait of Luke, Lily, Dave and Janey Neff, and Aung and Ahu
Surrounded by friends on a screen porch, Aung strums his guitar and raises his husky voice as his brother, Ahu, harmonizes, slightly off-key but with a strong set of pipes.
They sing "Kan bawi pa Jisuh," a song Aung wrote in the Chin language, which translates as "Our Lord Jesus." Other teens from their homeland, now living in the Richmond area, cheer and applaud.
It's Aung's 19th birthday party, a Sunday-afternoon gathering in June that brings neighbors, friends and a significant portion of Richmond's teenage Chin community. One of foster mom Janey Neff's friends has made a chocolate cake adorned with large "one" and "nine" candles, and there's homemade ice cream. It's a relaxed party, as Aung and 4-year-old Lily Neff combine forces to blow out the candles. With cake and ice cream distributed among the guests, there are songs to sing, Chin hymns from a book Aung carried from a Malaysian refugee camp.
The End of School
This time last year, Aung was living in a Vietnamese-speaking foster home in Henrico County. The Neffs were foster parents to another Chin teen who has since left their home, and Ahu was in the refugee camp, dodging military police, snakes and other dangers. Now his biggest concern is whether to attend summer school. Signs point to no.
"I'm gonna be lazy," Ahu says after giving a PowerPoint presentation on Jupiter for his ESL class (see video below). "I need to rest."
In L.C. Bird High's library, where Ahu and his classmates gave their presentations, the staffers say how proud they are of the students, who've made great strides in English and computer skills. It's true, especially in Ahu's case. He's already speaking in American slang — a far cry from 10 months ago, when he spoke only a handful of English words. In May, he won a freshman-class prize for being the most outstanding student in woodworking.
Aung, meanwhile, studied medieval history in Alysse Cullinan's class, discussing serfs, nobles, huts and manors in the last week of regular classes before final exams. His English skills continue to progress apace, and he is a promising student, Cullinan says.
The social side of school remains a sticking point for the boys and Janey; although Aung and Ahu seem to be liked and respected by their classmates, this hasn't translated to friendships outside of school.
So the Neffs are contemplating a big change in the fall for Aung — he may enter the 11th grade at Richmond Christian School, a small parochial institution in Chesterfield.
"I think it could be a good thing socially for Aung," foster father Dave Neff says, adding that at Bird, "I don't think he found a niche."
Ahu would like to leave Bird, too, but he needs more ESL training, which Richmond Christian doesn't offer, the Neffs say. If Aung goes, he'll have to deal with a rigorous academic environment, which could affect his after-school job at Anatolia Grill.
After a brief trip to Virginia Beach, Aung has spent a lot of time at his job, learning more about kitchen work and making money to send to his grandmother in Myanmar, which has received international press lately with the trial of Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, accused of violating the terms of her house arrest after an uninvited American swam to her home.
A few weeks ago, Aung tried and failed to get his learner's permit at the DMV, but is set to try again very soon — when he takes the practice test online, he always passes, so this goal seems close.
Meanwhile, Ahu's at home, serving as a full-time playmate for Lily, a role she's initiated.
"Lily kind of took to Ahu right away," Dave notes, and because of his slight stature and youthful face, she seems to think he's close to her age. Janey jokes that perhaps a 15-year-old boy has a different summer agenda than a 4-year-old girl, but so far, they get along well. On a recent day, Ahu and Lily made a wooden car together in the wood shop, building on lessons he'd learned at school.
Both brothers play with Luke and some neighborhood kids, running through the woods with Airsoft BB guns. Aung and Ahu are exceptionally good at hiding, Janey notes, a carryover from their days in the refugee camp.
Looking back at the family's earlier experiences with refugee foster kids who suffered from major emotional trauma, Janey says the past year with Aung and Ahu has been much more positive. "They're so easy and sweet and lovable," she says. It's been a pleasure to introduce the boys to new things, she adds, such as taking Ahu to the ocean for the first time.
"It's sometimes a concern to me, that they don't voice their needs," such as needing a ride somewhere, she says. "I just remind myself to check up on them." But the boys are aware of the Neffs' affection for them; Aung told Janey the other day that he plans to "always" live with them.
And Ahu says, while walking back to class after his Jupiter presentation, "They love me. We don't do anything for them, just go to school."