Though Kyaw Wah lost his only daughter in a car accident near Heber this week, he is so grateful to the doctors who saved his wife that he wants a photograph of them to keep for the rest of his life.
Newcomers to America, the refugees from Burma had been in the U.S. a little more than a year. Some refugee advocates now say the tragedy is evidence of the need for more car safety education and increased access to driver licenses in Utah to prevent people from obtaining them illegally out of state.
Kyaw Wah's wife and daughter were in Salt Lake City on Monday, working on paperwork for Medicaid and food stamps. They asked a friend, who is also a refugee, to drive them home to Heber.
Troopers say the car veered off Highway 40, crashed into a culvert and rolled. There are conflicting reports on which of the five people in the car were wearing seat belts. Mu La Er, 14, was apparently ejected from the car.
The accident remains under investigation. The father, who was not in the car and does not speak English, doesn't blame the driver.
"There are people in the community having a hard time not having someone to blame," said Emily Perry, the Utah Refugee Coalition's development director, who helped resettle the family in Heber. "But for them, they are very strong, very forgiving and loving people."
The Burmese community has offered refugees auto-safety workshops, which include seat-belt demonstrations.
But for Ler Wah, a refugee from Burma who works as an employment counselor, the accident is a reminder of the hurdles faced by refugees seeking Utah driver licenses.
Since the elimination of a picture-based test several years ago, most refugees are required to take the test in English.
Only those who have arrived recently qualify to use interpreters. That leads hundreds of refugees to skirt residency requirements to get licenses in Arizona and Colorado, where interpretation is allowed, advocates say.
The driver in Monday's accident had a license from Arizona, said Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Thomas Simpson.
Ler Wah is concerned those drivers are sidestepping requirements and not getting adequate training.
"Those who go to Colorado or Arizona, they go there one day, they pay and they're finished," he said. "Here in Utah, it's totally different you'll be in class for a week."
Although some refugees arrive in Utah with licenses from other countries, others have rarely been in a car, let alone driven one. Yet a car is often a necessity for adults trying to get to work in areas not served by public transportation or for shifts that are at night.
Ler Wah would like to see the driver license rules change. "We don't want this to happen again," he said.
Mu La Er's family had lived for about five years in Mae La, a refugee camp housing 50,000 people in thatched huts on the western edge of Thailand. Few residents drive cars.
Classmates and families at Mu La Er's school, Rocky Mountain Middle School in Heber City, have raised more than $5,000 to support the refugee family. The school's health teacher and DARE officer talked to students this week about car safety, including seat belts.
In the hours after Mu La Er died, doctors treating her mother, Ma Tawe, told the family to prepare for the worst because her spinal cord had separated from her skull and her lungs were punctured. But two major surgeries were successful, and Ma Tawe can now move her arms and legs. Her 11-year-old son, Kyaw Su, was not in the accident.
The driver and other two passengers also suffered serious injuries, but they are expected to recover.
All of the adults except the driver worked at a dry cleaning plant in Heber, home to a growing Burmese community.
"It's been pretty sober the last couple days obviously there's been crying," said Justin Kelly, assistant principal at the middle school. "She did play on a community volleyball team, and those girls are probably affected the most."
Three other refugee students, all Burmese, attend the school. Their home country is now named Myanmar.
"A lot of kids after her death realized we can be nicer to people, we can reach out to those who may not be like us," he said. "I think that's the real tragedy: Everyone knew what she went through to get here."
Kelly described Mu La Er as having a passion for learning.
Contributions will help the family
P An account has been established under Mu La Er's name at Zions Bank in Heber, 81 E. Center St. Mailing address is P.O. Box 248, Heber, UT 84032. A viewing and Buddhist ceremony for Mu La Er will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Wasatch Presbyterian Church, 1626 S. 1700 East in Salt Lake City.
What is a refugee?
A refugee is a legal immigrant brought to the U.S. by the government because of persecution or threat of persecution. About 25,000 refugees live in Utah. To find out more or to volunteer, go to refugee.utah.gov.