Saturday, October 29, 2011

Another dispatch from the field

This month, in-home tutor Andy Prinsen reflects on his experience with the Burmese family he helps with English and literacy.

Though she is only 59, she looks much older, and it's as if this is the first time she has held a pen. If I place my own hand over hers and help her make the motions of the letters, she can write in the big block, all-caps print of starting language learners. But if I sit and watch, it takes the old woman several minutes to sit and contemplate a plan for forming the letters. She mumbles to herself and makes motions with her finger in the air - always starting from the bottom and pushing up rather than from the top down like I've tried to show her dozens of times.

But when she finishes, when she gets through scratching out all five letters of her first and last name combined, something magical happens. I give her a thumbs up and say "Good job!" words she doesn't actually understand the meaning of, and there is a sparkle in her eye - a sense of academic accomplishment that I have to remind myself every week she never got as a little girl. For her, these are the same steps I took as a kindergartner. But she doesn't seem upset that it took her much longer. Like her fellow countrywomen, she is steadfast - even stoic.

The woman's name is Ma Naw* and I get to meet with her and her husband every week to learn English. They are refugees from Burma that have been living here in Denver since February. When I show up at their door, a less than ideal apartment complex in one of Denver's less desirable neighborhoods, the old man is always wearing a sweatshirt and a jacket, with both hoods on. Even at 65°, Denver feels much colder than the jungle where he and his wife were rice farmers for decades. When I look at this man and realize he has been alive since 1932, there are so many things I want to ask him. He has seen Burma go from a British colony to an independent nation. He has then seen that nation overthrown and ripped apart by a violent military junta who then made it their policy to target people from his and other ethnic groups.

But we can't talk about any of this yet because we're still working on "money" ("pay-jong" in Karen), "spoon" ("nu-tow"), and "head" ("ko-quee"). And I know that neither his English nor my Karen will probably ever be good enough for us to have those conversations that I would love to have. But for now, that's ok. For now I can settle for sharing laughs over their inability to produce an "f" sound without any top front teeth, and my inability to pronounce most any of the sounds in their language. For now, I will do my part how I can and hope that one day they will be able to return to the land they love.

If you live in the Denver area and are interested in becoming an English tutor for a refugee family, visit the program's website or Emily Griffith Technical College's website to learn how.

Andy Prinsen is a staff member with Global Refuge, a nonprofit organization that provides relief in conflict, human persecution, and natural and man-made disasters, with an emphasis on a lasting and hopeful recovery. They work inside Burma, where his English students are from.

*Name changed for privacy

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