If you're headed up to Aberdeen, over to Pierre or down to Mitchell, you may take a detour through Huron. Now many people that head through town make the mistake of thinking Huron is just another Midwest city. This most definitely is not the case.
Looking into the hallways at Huron High School, you will notice a wide variety of ethnicity. Roughly 40% of students at the high school are either Hispanic or Asian, and it has been this way for quite a while now.
“I would say our first noticeable change in our student culture started in about 2007,” Huron principal Demi Moon said.
“It’s definitely a unique experience compared to other high schools. I used to go to Watertown High School, and it was a complete different story walking down through the hallways,” Huron senior Mark Christenson said.
Immigrants from Burma and Thailand, of the Karen, have flocked to Huron, filling classrooms. They have fled their homeland to escape the brutality of the Burmese military regime.
“We live in refugee camp in Thailand. They were really difficult; it's a lot different than here,” Huron ESL helper La Rar said. La Rer says in the refugee camp she had to eat on the floor and sleep on the floor. She has been in Huron around 8 years now, but it wasn’t her first stop in the states.
“I go to school in Arizona, Phoenix. There are not a lot of Karen people, or a lot of people to help because we are new. I don't like there because big city, so I called my brother, he live here in Huron, so I say I want to move there,” she said, and so she did.
When La Rer came to America it was not possible for Karen people to come straight to Huron. At that time they had to go to big cities like Minneapolis, Saint Louis or Phoenix. For the past couple years though, Karen people can now come straight to Huron from their Asian homeland.
“In about 2011 or somewhere around that time, we became a first receiver point for Lutheran Social Services which means that those families come straight from their countries and land in America, and the first place that they land is now Huron,” Moon said.
Industry in and around Huron, as well as the small community feel, draws Karen immigrants to Beadle County for jobs.
“When we first moved here it's like a newborn baby. We have to learn everything; how to eat, how to cook, how to use material here. I cry and really want to go back,” La Rer said of her first experiences here, but since then her mindset has changed.
“I love Huron. Small city, quiet, I love the school,” she said.
She loved it so much that after she graduated in 2013 she became an ESL (English as a Second Language) helper at the school.
“I am really happy, and I see them grow and their English, I am really happy,” she said.
This influx of students who need help with English is definitely a challenge for teachers. Many teachers say the language barrier is the biggest challenge.
“That language barrier is something that is always in the back of their [teachers] mind. Being able to communicate with them, being able to understand their culture, and understand that these students go through an acculturation period, and that it takes time,” ESL director Kari Hinker said.
“I saw people talk English. I try to copy them, and like try. Even at home, I try talking to my sister because they are better than me, so I try to talk to them, and they help a lot too,” freshman Chit Snow said.
“They've adapted really well learning English. I am friends with some of them, and some, when I met them, they didn't speak a word of English. Now they speak it probably better than me,” sophomore Trent Francom said.
“Our teachers have been working endlessly to accommodate their needs. We need to know what they need more, so teachers are constantly looking for how we can improve the education for these students,” ESL teacher Becca Briggs said.
This challenge is something Huron High School takes pride in.
“Everything has been very positive. We have had a lot of new teachers lately that have come straight out of college that we are pleased with. They stay because they find this job so rewarding. They are fortunate enough to see, every day, faces light up in the room to say ‘oh, I got that!’” Hinker said.
Working with students with a love for learning also makes things a little easier. Teachers say the desire to learn is noticed greatly amongst Karen students.
“If it's hard, it's fun to learn. It's difficult, but it helps you learn new things, and sometimes it's easy too, I just love it,” Snow said.
Now, nearly 8 years after first coming to Huron, Karen students are starting to shed their shell and participate in extracurricular activities. The fine arts is one area in particular where Karen students are focusing.
“When I first started maybe I had three, four, or five Karen girls in girl chorus, and then the next year I had 10 girls, then it was 12, then it was 15, and last year was my biggest group of almost 50, and I would say all but 10 were Karen,” music teacher Laura Petersen said.
This involvement is encouraging for Karen people in Huron, and will likely only help the Karen population to continue.
“Yeah you saw Karen people everywhere now, everywhere,” La Rer said.