By The Associated Press Staff
MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa (AP) — Residents in an eastern Iowa town are struggling with a severe language barrier, as they try to comfort two refugee families whose children drowned in the Iowa River this week.
The families in Marshalltown speak one of an estimated 135 dialects used by ethnic minorities in the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, complicating efforts to communicate even among those who are from the country.
Family friends told The Des Moines Register that the mother of two of the children, 9-year-old Lee Meh and 7-year-old Se Reh, spent a night in the hospital after she attempted to commit suicide. Overcome with grief, Tay Mo smashed a mirror in her upper-floor apartment Wednesday night and lunged for an open window, said Khay Day, a family friend.
Parents of the third victim, 7-year-old Thay Mo, initially did not believe their child was gone. On Thursday morning, the couple refused to cite traditional prayers for the dead. They had touched Thay Mo’s arm shortly after her death, Da said, and her arm’s warmth had given them hope she was still alive.
The children were first cousins. Their fathers are brothers.
“I’m very sad,” said Da, who knows enough of the dialect the families speak, Karenni, to communicate with them. “I do not have very good words to describe, but I just want them to live happily and peacefully in the United States.”
Da said he helped enroll two of the children in school last year and had fond recollections of them.
Lee Meh was quiet, but smiled a lot, he said. Her brother, Se Reh, loved to play and was eager to wear his new clothes at the start of the school year, he said.
This is the second drowning in the area in the last month. A 10-year-old Marshalltown boy drowned June 18, officials said. Andres Favela had jumped into the river at the Center Street dam, which is less than a mile upstream from where Wednesday’s drownings occurred.
Marshalltown Police Chief Michael Tupper said he understands wanting to go swimming to cool down from the heat, but warned people against going into the Iowa River.
“The message that we are trying to get out to people is that the river is not a safe place to be.
It’s not a safe place to swim,” Tupper said. “The river looks relatively calm down on the location where this occurred, and in many areas down there, it’s very shallow. But there are also areas that can drop off to 12 or 14 feet, and the undercurrent can be very dangerous in any river.”
About a dozen family members had arrived at the river bank to fish and swim Wednesday.
They saw the children go under water shortly after 6 p.m., police said.
Marshalltown police late Thursday released a recording of a 911 call placed after the children disappeared.
A person’s screams are audible for almost all of the 80-second call. After a dispatcher says she’s having trouble understanding the caller, another voice says “Riverview Park” and then, in broken English, that a boy and girl are missing in the river. The caller apparently hangs up, and two dispatchers discuss the call, with one deciding police officers already at Riverview Park would try to address the problem.
Tupper said officers were able to locate the family within minutes of the call. Despite the language barrier, he said, the family and officers were able to communicate effectively enough that the search began immediately.
Before arriving in the United States, the children’s parents spent most of their lives with an estimated 150,000 refugees living in camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border, Da said.
The refugees fled to escape a military dictatorship in Myanmar. Today, Myanmar is struggling to establish a democratic government.
The children were born in the camps, Da said, adding that both sets of parents are illiterate.
He said Tay Mo, the mother who lost two of her five children, is fairly certain she was born in 1976, but doesn’t know her exact birth date.
“They don’t recognize how to spell their names. They don’t know the age of their kids,” Da said. “It’s really, really difficult to communicate.”
Bea Niblock, principal of Anson Elementary School, where Lee Meh and Se Reh were enrolled, said the district tried to gather cultural information to help the families organize a funeral, but ran into difficulties because the district’s interpreter, a Myanmar native, doesn’t speak the families’ language.
Da, who has served as an interpreter for the school district and police in the past, said he and others accompanied the families to several funeral homes. They have encouraged the parents to opt for cremation, because they can’t afford a traditional burial. (end)
Information from The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com.