A Burmese refugee profiled in a Villanova documentary becomes the voice of a growing population in the community by sharing his tragic, yet inspiring story.
Meh Sha Lin arrived in South Philadelphia in September 2007. He spoke no English and hadn’t attended school since becoming a teenager. Now, he is on track to graduate from South Philadelphia High next year. “I go to South Philly High. Yes, it is hard because, really different is my life when living in Thaliand — just grade school. This is my first time [and] school [is] not really easy for me,” the 18-year-old said.
The amazing journey Lin took from a refugee camp in Thailand to living at Seventh and Jackson streets is explored in the new Villanova University documentary, “Meh Sha,” which premiered last Saturday at the Ritz at the Bourse.
“Initially, we met up with the Nationalities Service Center,” Villanova student and Meh Sha producer Kristina Grappo said of the Chinatown-based center. “We wanted to do a project on immigration … we heard more about the stuff going on at South Philadelphia High and when we met “Meh Sha” it was like hitting a pot of gold.
“He’s just such a great kid. He keeps telling us we’ve become part of his family and he’s definitely become a part of ours.”
The 30-minute documentary chronicles Lin’s trip from a Thailand refugee camp to South Philadelphia, where he currently lives with his mother and sister. Two of his older sisters also live in nearby houses. Unfortunately, his brother remains missing in Thailand.
Following Lin around with the camera, the student group captured his day-to-day routine, which includes his schooling and working at the Friendly’s market on the corner of Seventh and Jackson.
“Sometimes we sit and talk to the camera and sometimes we walk around and take a video,” Lin said of the filming process. “I talk about my life, how it is different from being a refugee to an American, when I came, the first time in my new school. I like it in America, [I talk about] how I like it, about my school.”
In attendance at last weekend’s premiere was Lin, all his family members, his best friend and his favorite teacher.
Leading up to his big day, there were no nerves involved.
“I’m so excited because I never been in a video [of] my life before — that’s my first time,” Lin said. “People say I’m a star, I’m so happy.”
But, as is definitive of the resilient and giving spirit of Lin, his attention was on others rather than himself.
“A lot of teachers are coming, my favorite teacher is coming — they can be together and they can have a conversation with each other at the program,” Lin said as he was especially looking forward to sharing the day with all the people that have become involved in his life. “I’m so happy and excited, too!”
Meh Sha Lin’s mother is Burmese, but she moved her family to a refugee camp in Thailand — a common occurrence as the conditions continue to deteriorate for citizens of Burma.
Lin suffered a traumatic time in the refugee camps, including the murder of his father. When there was no one to provide for the family, the family’s eldest male left the camp in search of work. Tragically, when the Lin family was approved for refugee status and moved to the United States, the brother was unavoidably left behind. They continue to search for him today.
“I would go to war like every day, fight a bunch of guys in the jungle. I want to help people, help people — I feel [that] I can do that. Because I understand before my life [was] really bad, really hard to go to school,” Lin said. “[My teachers] help me already, help me give back to these people.”
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Lin was enrolled in an English as a Second Language class at South Philadelphia High, 2101 S. Broad St. Astonishingly, he quickly had a firm grasp on the basics of the language and it allowed him to take the necessary courses for a high school degree. Lin, as always, knows where to put the credit.
“My favorite teacher is Mr. [William] Mirsky because he teaches really good, other teachers teach good, every single teacher [at South Philly High] teaches good, [but] that teacher, he understands, he really understands me,” Lin said of his ESL teacher who does not speak Lin’s native tongue. “When he looks at my face, he knows already, I don’t have to say. When I forget my homework, he says, ‘Oh, you forgot your homework.’ I don’t have to say it.
“He makes it fun.”