New exhibit at The Exchange House showcases what it’s like to be an immigrant teen

by Noor Hindi

Sar Htoo has spent most of her life in the United States serving as a cultural broker for her parents. At doctor’s offices and emergency rooms, she’s often tasked with the difficult responsibility of communicating between her parents and doctors. At home, when her parents have questions about American cultural norms, she helps them understand.

The challenge of being a teenager and dealing with the pressures of school, coupled with the weight of helping her parents navigate this country, can be nerve-wracking, she says.

“Mostly, it’s stressful, especially when there’s a cultural difference. I have to explain what things are like here to my parents,” Sar says.

A new exhibit at the Exchange House highlights these challenges. Conducted by a team of researchers from Malone University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, the project’s goal is to highlight the personal experience of Burmese and Bhutanese teens in North Hill who serve as language brokers in health care settings.

A group of eight teens from North Hill participated in the project. Each teen was given a camera and asked to take photos of specific moments in their lives when they had to translate between doctors and family members. They were also given journals and asked to write about their experiences.

The photos and journal entries are currently on display at the Exchange House. Dr. Rosanna Hess, who led the study alongside researchers and nurses Chelsea Ruhl and Sherri Brundson, says it’s important for healthcare providers to understand the difficulty the teenagers face, and to call on the help of professional and certified translators when there are language barriers.

She hopes the project can communicate some of the ethical dilemmas the teens face, as well as show the larger community how “strong and resilient immigrant families are.”

“I would love for them to see how these teenagers are able to be stretched to a whole new role. And they’re not always comfortable with it. They struggle with it, but they honor their parents. They honor their elders by doing this. And it shows how strong they are.”

The project found that four of eight of the students had to miss school several times to serve as language brokers, and an equal number of teens said the task made them both nervous and proud.

Nul Rai, another participant, says his friends often face these same issues and he hopes the project can help other teens who are struggling.

“There’s a lot of people at North [Hill] that are dealing with the same thing. Hopefully they don’t feel alone and they know there’s help out there,” Nul says.

View the exhibit at The Exchange House at 760 Elma Street.

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Email her at 

Images: Photos and journal entries by study participants on display at the Exchange House. Photos by Noor Hindi.