TAMPA — Mai Ra Hay had never held a camera.
He had spent most of his 17 years in a refugee camp built with bamboo, on streets made of mud, surrounded by people who were just like him: Burmese, Muslim, poor.
And yet here he was in St. Petersburg, fumbling with this electronic thing, being told it was his to keep — that in four months, his photos would line the walls of an art studio along with those of 16 other kids from all over the world.
To him, digital was as foreign a concept as potato chips and high school and the English language.
Niki Kelly, who coordinated the project through Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, knew the refugees from English lessons and field trips. Now, she wanted to see how they saw the world.
But she watched as Mai Ra Hay sat silently, unsmiling.
"You can't expect him to do this" she heard his father tell a translator. "This is too hard for him."
She didn't think so.
• • •
Mai Ra Hay was born in Myanmar, a military-led nation once known as Burma, bordered by China, Thailand and India. He was an infant when his family fled religious persecution through the wilderness, across the Thai border.
He spent most of his life trapped inside a refugee camp in Thailand, which offered no sanitation or schools. Occasionally, he and his parents would sneak out to find work on a farm.
Last year, the United Nations coordinated their journey to Tampa, which ended in an apartment complex just south of Temple Terrace, where several other Burmese Muslims live.
The families treat the complex much like their Thai refugee village. They don't use air conditioning, have minimal furniture and leave doors wide open.
Outside, kids string a torn piece of electrical wire to a palm tree to make a volleyball net. Women sit by their clotheslines talking, as they pick bitter buds off a plant and eat them.
Mai Ra Hay retreats indoors to watch Burmese music videos on DVD. They're some of the only images he has of the country where he was born.
In one of his first attempts at photography, he shot mountaintops and Burmese actresses through the glare of the television screen.
• • •
Mai Ra Hay climbs a ladder onto the top deck of the SS American Victory ship, anchored over the Ybor Channel.
He's on a field trip with Tressa Weyer, a specialist with Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services' refugee youth program, to help expand his vocabulary.
But the tour guide is using words Mai Ra Hay doesn't understand, like "gyroscope" and "fathoms" and "hydraulics."
Of all the challenges he faces here, communication is the most frustrating.
As the tour guide launches into a description of radio signals and Morse code, Mai Ra Hay holds his camera up to his face, and looks out over the water.
• • •
Weyer sits on a couch in Mai Ra Hay's balmy two-bedroom apartment, looking over more than a dozen children at the complex for their weekly English lesson.
Mai Ra Hay, seated on the floor, is surrounded by little kids, some of them already speaking in complete sentences. It's an odd place for the 17-year-old to be.
Back in Thailand, he worked alongside adults. Now, he spends much of his time playing with 14- and 15-year-olds.
He's young enough to be expected to dream of a future, but old enough to understand his limitations.
Mai Ra Hay was dropped into King High School last year without any former education, and will spend his senior year taking pottery and child care classes.
His parents, who were forced into hard labor in Burma, don't have jobs. Many Burmese refugees quit when work triggers memories of the torture.
Despite financial assistance from several different agencies, his mother worries about keeping the lights on. They need interpreters to read the bills.
Weyer asks the children on the floor what they want for their lives.
The little ones say they want to live in castles and fly airplanes. Mai Ra Hay says he's undecided, but wants to buy a house big enough to fit his family.
"It's possible," Weyer tells the kids. "You can have a house, a car and a job. You can fly an airplane. In America, you can do whatever you want."
She looks at Mai Ra Hay. "Is that true?"
• • •
On Saturday, Mai Ra Hay walked into the Studio@620 in St. Petersburg to find his photos, framed on the walls.
His dad stayed home, but Mai Ra Hay looked at his work with the 10 family members and friends who came.
His childhood was one without Little League and science fairs and school plays. This was the first time he could show off an accomplishment.
His photos were bright, and illustrated his wonder at the bizarre new world around him:
A tall building coming out of the sand. An elaborate playground on the beach. A crowd of people of different ages and races — the caption says he didn't know people came in so many different colors.
Kelly learned something, too: "Our kids actually are much more hopeful than we give them credit for."
Mai Ra Hay spent that afternoon taking pictures and playing them back on his camera, to show his friends how it worked.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.