SPD’s first female Burmese officer crossed India-Myanmar border by foot, worked two jobs during high school

Judith Par-Lwei Syracuse Police

Judith Par-Lwei, 23, is the first female Burmese officer to serve at the Syracuse Police Department (SPD). She is also currently the only Asian American female officer at the Syracuse Police Department.

Journey to the U.S.

Par-Lwei and her family left Burma in 2008 in a vehicle packed with 30 people on it, seeking refuge in India, according to Syracuse.com. Her family and others walked across the border after their transportation broke down and settled in a New Delhi refugee camp. They stayed in India for five years, and as the oldest of five kids, Par-Lwei took care of her family instead of attending school. 

In 2013, the family relocated to Syracuse, New York, when Par-Lwei was 15. She attended Henninger High School where she struggled to catch up with her classmates.

“I only had a third grade education from my home country,” Par-Lwei told Syracuse.com. “They put me in high school, and I had no idea what they were saying. So I would just write down everything the teacher wrote on the board, then look up what they were saying at home. That’s how I tried to learn.”

While making her way through high school, she also worked at Secret Garden Restaurant and Cosmopolitan Salon & Spa. After she’d come back from school every day, she worked until about midnight before she could finally start her homework. But because Par-Lwei had to translate her class notes and textbook lessons word by word, doing homework would take her hours longer than it was supposed to.

“I had no problem with not getting enough sleep, because I was very grateful to be in school,” she said. “I loved school, because I wasn’t able to go in India for five years.”

Par-Lwei graduated high school with honors and went on to study criminal justice at SUNY Potsdam, where she finished college in three years and graduated summa cum laude in 2020. She passed her civil service exam during the pandemic and graduated from Syracuse Police Regional Academy in December.

“I am the first ever to pursue this kind of career in my family,” Par-Lwei said. “They are very hyped and very proud of me.”

Entering the force 

Par-Lwei always wanted to work in law enforcement.

“Ever since I was little, I thought being a police officer was an honorable job,” she said. “I am very glad to help the refugee population to be comfortable with police officers,” she said. “Most of them are really scared, because that was how it was back in Burma. But I could actually connect a bridge between them.”

According to Syracuse.com, SPD Chief Kenton Buckner and Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh are prioritizing the recruitment of female and Black officers to the force. SPD’s annual reports show most officers in public safety positions are white and male. About 90% that were sworn-in were white, 9% were Black and 2% were Hispanic. Less than 2% of officers were Native American or Asian. As of 2021, there are now three officers of Asian descent in the force, according to SPD Sgt. Matthew Malinowski, but that’s still less than 1% of the department.

Par-Lwei says diversity is important in all police departments.

“If there are more colors in the department, it will better help the community,” Par-Lwei said. “I’m just very grateful to be here, to do this job, to serve the community that gave me and my family a safe place to live and study.”

Feature Image via Facebook

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