Hess grew up in one of Thailand’s seven refugee camps. It was crowded, hot – “like a slum.” Small bamboo houses with leaf roofing were packed in tight, numbered sections, each section containing up to 400. Thousands of people were enclosed by the wire fences that bordered the camp.
“The population was roughly 70,0000 or 80,000, give or take,” he said.
The camp’s inhabitants couldn’t afford to think in the long-term; all that mattered was getting through the next day. 15-year-old Hess was no exception. Living day-by-day felt hopeless, and he never thought about his career or what he would do as an adult.
Hess and his schoolmates found comfort in soccer. He loved to imagine himself as a soccer player making it big in the tournaments one day, but he was also grounded by his desire to go to school and “get good grades.” He had as much fun competing with his friends in the classroom as he did outdoors.
Starting a new chapter in life often brings previous chapters to a close. Hess’ family applied to resettle in late 2007, and when they were selected in 2008, Hess realized he would have to leave his friends behind. The flight to the U.S. carried the hefty burden of homesickness.
When his family arrived, the culture and climate were unlike anything he had experienced before. Everyone around him spoke too quickly for him to understand, and it was stressful.
“I felt homesick. I had no friends. I’m like, I feel like an alien in the streets! And it was very cold, hard to adjust. The food, environment, culture – all a challenge,” he recalled.
But his family wasn’t alone. They had a support network of staff to schedule appointments, coordinate medical visits and school registration, and help lift the weight from their shoulders. Hess started to feel a little better, relieved by kindness and the opportunity to learn the language.
He re-enrolled in high school as a freshman, and his homesickness couldn’t hide his outgoing personality for long. Forming bonds became easier as time passed. And while they would never replace his love for his friends back home, his new friends helped restore his confidence. He began to knock on doors with the faith that they would open for him.
Now, as a part-time interpreter and full-time social worker at Karen Community in Rock Island, Hess meets clients with the same warm embrace that helped him feel accepted in his time of need. And he has “a lot of plans.”
“I hope to go back to my homeland and open up a business, to help educate children in my home country and influence them to see the world better,” Hess said.
The sense of loss that once sat like a stone on his chest became a seed. Once nourished by belonging, Hess grew to heights his teenage self would never have expected – and flourishes with every opportunity to give back.
Written by Erica Parrigin