Christina Khim, '14, Has Found Her Home Away from Home

From Myanmar to Michigan, and ‘she’s not going to stop’

December 2, 2015 | By Chuck Carlson

Christina Khim, '14
Gerstacker Institute alumna Christina Khim, '14, is associate director of the Burma Center in Battle Creek. She is also pursuing a master's in public administration at Western Michigan University. "It is like a miracle," she said. "I did not know my future [in Myanmar] but I knew I was going to be successful one day."

Christina Khim still remembers everything about the day her life changed forever.

It was September 30, 2009, and as she landed in Chicago with her mother, she realized just what an adventure awaited.

"I remember thinking that this was where I was going to start my life," she says now. "I asked myself, 'Can I be successful here?'"

She smiles at the memory.

"This first thing I noticed was the difference in the people," she said. "Nobody looked like me anymore. It was intimidating."

She remembers everything.

"It was right at the beginning of fall and it was amazing to see the leaves changing," she said. "And I was so cold."

Then she smiles again.

"And it really wasn't that cold," she said. "I was told it was going to get a lot colder."

These are the memories that linger, the memories that find a place in the soul and stay forever, untouched by circumstances. And for Christina Khim, a 2014 Albion College graduate, they are the memories hard earned and tested by time and tribulation, which makes them even more special.

"It was like a dream for me," she said. "I never thought I'd be able to make it."

But she did make it. She has made it.

She has found a home in America, along with nearly 2,000 other Myanmar natives who have come to this part of Michigan for a second chance, and in some cases, a final chance.

"We left the country for our freedom," she said.

Now, six years after arriving, she remembers the world she left behind but can't imagine going back to.

After arriving in Battle Creek in 2009, Khim, who was already 24 years old, earned her associate's degree at Kellogg Community College.

Then, with the help of a Distinguished Transfer Scholarship, she went to Albion, was a member of the tennis team, enrolled in the Carl A. Gerstacker Institute for Business and Management and, upon graduation—summa cum laude with a B.A. in business and organizations—was hired as associate director of the Burma Center in Battle Creek, where she works today.

"There's a reason for things happening in our lives," she said simply.

A Journey of Discovery

Her journey from there to here was not simple but, as she recalls now, it was necessary. Of that she has no doubt.

Christina Khim was born in the town of Falam in a country as torn apart by name as it is by religion and politics.

To her, the country of her birth was always known as Myanmar.

"But the people here always kept calling it Burma, so I started calling it Burma," she said.

In her home country, every name has a meaning and her last name, Khim, was no different.

In her language, it means "perfection" or "completeness."

"I like my name," she said. "And my mom always says I have to live up to it."

Even as a child, she knew there was more to her world than the farm that dominated the mountainous landscape where she grew up.

Her dad, Thuah Za Thang, was a truck driver who, like so many others, was at the mercy of the military, which had been in charge of the country for decades despite moves toward democracy. His movements were closely monitored and he was at the whim of those in charge.

"It was a very poor area," she said, recalling that her family had access to electricity perhaps two months out of the year.

She would study mostly by candlelight and recalls the one-mile walk to school every day.

"It was up and down hills," she said. "It was great exercise."

And she remembers how her parents would always impress on her the value of education.

"They said, 'Without education, you won't be able to go any farther,'" she said. "That was very important to them."

Her father died at age 39, when Christina was just 16, and it was around that time when her older brother and sister, Stan and Jennifer Thuahzathang, made their way to America and, eventually, Battle Creek.

It was also around the time when Christina and her mom, Rebecca Zun, and her younger sister, Amanda Saw, began to think it was time for them to leave as well.

In 2007, that moment came.

Because of events she chooses not to discuss, Christina, her sister and her mom decided it was time to leave their native country and join Stan and Jennifer in Michigan.

But it would take more than two years for it to become a reality. They lived in Malaysia for much of that time, wading through several levels of security clearance. One agency, the International Rescue Committee, hired Christina as an interpreter and she ended up learning several Burmese languages including Falam, Hakha, Lumbang and Burmese as well as fine-tuning her English.

Finally, in September 2009, they were cleared to come to the United States and, after landing in Chicago, they immediately went to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Martha Thawnghmung was waiting for her.

At the time, Thawnghmung had already lived for 25 years in Battle Creek and could tell quickly that Christina was someone special.

"You sense that someone has something extraordinary in them and you watch and see what they do with it," she said. "You hope that seed will come to fruition. It's the visible things. She has an extraordinary voice and real, visible leadership. She doesn't say no to any type of leadership opportunity."

Finding a Home

And Christina, now 31, wasted little time when she came to the U.S., earning her associate's degree in general studies from KCC.

"I wanted to continue [college] in business and Martha said I should check out Albion College," said Khim, who received the Distinguished Transfer Scholarship as well as other grants to allow her to attend.

She entered Albion as a junior and enrolled in the Gerstacker program that allowed her to continue her interest in business.

"A lot of things I had an opportunity to do at Albion because of its size," she said. "Gerstacker really prepared me for the work I do today. They teach you to be a great leader."

She graduated in May 2014 and in June Thawnghmung offered her the associate director job at the Burma Center, which Thawnghmung had opened three years earlier as an outreach for the growing Burmese community.

"I was looking for her," Thawnghmung said.

Now based at the old Springfield High School on Upton Avenue, the center provides services to the Burmese community from helping with medical and legal appointments, education, assistance in paying bills and providing interpretation skills.

Khim handles many of those duties and also helps teach courses in English as a Second Language.

In fact, she is hoping to work through Albion's Education Department to find interns to the Burma Center who can help teach those skills.

"It's a good place for education majors to do an internship," Khim said.

And, she admits, she wouldn't mind the help.

"I'm doing a lot of things," she said. "It's pretty busy here."

But she wouldn't have it any other way.

"She has picked up everything and she can go into places that I haven't reached," Thawnghmung said. "She is a prime, visible example of what [Burmese] people are capable of. She's tenacious, she has resolve and she gives me confidence that she's not going to stop."

For Khim, this is the life she had always hoped for but never imagined would happen.

She is reunited with her family, her mother became a U.S. citizen this year and she hopes to join her next year. Six months ago, she married another Burmese native, Nathan Cem. She is also attending Western Michigan University and studying for a master's in public administration with an eye on nonprofit leadership and management.

"It is like a miracle," she said. "I did not know my future [in Myanmar] but I knew I was going to be successful one day. I did the best I could every day and I knew it would take me somewhere."