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The power of words: Young Michigan refugee wins regional poetry honors

Thang Lian

April is National Poetry Month. Thang Lian is a poet and a senior at East Kentwood High School near Grand Rapids. He recently won the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers’ Gold Key Regional Award for poetry. Beyond his writing, Lian is an active member of his community in raising awareness and funds for refugees and immigrants. 

Supporting refugees and immigrants is an area of work that Lian has a personal connection to. When he was only five years old, his family left Myanmar to move to America. His poem Just As Bitter, Just As Sweet depicts the moment as a young child he learned his family was moving to America. 

“As a refugee. I've always wanted to express my story. I've always wanted to tell my story my way. And poetry was one of the ways, the avenues that allowed me to tell my story in a way that was unapologetic in a way that really allowed me to express my raw emotions about what I felt when I left home, and what it means to be able to acclimate into communities such as Kentwood.”

Understanding why his family left Myanmar 

“Myanmar, as you may have heard, is currently undergoing a coup,” Lian said. “My parents underwent the 1988 coup. The 1988 uprising. Which, there's a lot of resemblances to the current coup that is happening right now, and that was why they left Myanmar. That was why they had the courage and the bravery to be able to uproot their entire family so that they could leave Myanmar and seek better opportunities.”

Overcoming the label of being a refugee

“As a refugee, as an immigrant hailing from the most diverse high school in all of Michigan, I believe that I have a duty to empower others. Because for a lot of refugees and immigrants, there is a sense of shame that comes with being a refugee, a sense of being different, a sense of maybe I can't achieve what I want to achieve because of my refugee label. And I want people to understand that simply because you're a refugee, simply because you're an immigrant, that should not be an obstacle towards your success. Because you are a refugee. It is a blessing because it has given you life, has given you opportunities to grow a thicker skin, that has given you opportunities to be able to develop a sense of yourself, to be able to develop a sense of purpose,” Lian said. “And so I want to empower them to share their own stories so that they can stand as a true testament to the power of human resiliency, which is the story of all refugees are.”

Countering anti-Asian hate during a rise of Asian hate crimes in America

“I see this current rise in Asian-American hatred as something that is very personal as an Asian-American myself. And so I simply wanted to say that, sometimes words are not enough to express the pain and the trauma that a community feels. And when words can do no justice in expressing our pain and trauma, it is our community that we turn to. And I really, really want to emphasize and underscore the importance of community. Because when words are not enough, we turn to our community for support, for guidance, and for love,” Lian said. “And so our community plays a huge role, especially in Kentwood, where many, many of our committee members are refugees, immigrants, Asian-Americans. And so I want to urge everyone to stand in solidarity with Asian-American communities, to stand not only solidarity but to take action by checking up on your friends who are Asian, who are Asian-American or Pacific Islanders. Checking up on them to make sure that they are okay and that they are coping well. And for the community to simply take a stance against the xenophobia, against this racism that is happening to our Asian communities.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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