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Learning English forges connections

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - From left, Nama Abdollah, Fatuma Elmi, Terusa Billy, English teacher Heidi Pitts, and Tina, stretch out on the grass at Barberry Village to talk about why they are taking part in English classes. 
Tina, a refugee from Myanmar with no last name, acts just like a typical mother trying to keep up with the younger generation when asked if there are phrases her kids say that she doesn’t understand.

She rolls her eyes and laughs. “Too many,” she says, unable to think of one on the spot.

She’s been in America just over three years, and like many other refugees, was taken straight from the airplane to Barberry Village, 224 S.E. 188th Ave., where she began her life in the United States.

Tina likes Barberry Village because her children can walk to school and it’s close to the MAX line. And also like other refugees, she said living in America offers a safety and security she didn’t feel in Myanmar, a country on the Bay of Bengal, and also bordered by China, Thailand and Bangladesh.

On Tuesday this week, Tina sat in a circle in a grass courtyard in Barberry Village with three other women from an English language class offered at Davis Elementary School through the Rockwood Community Development Corporation.

Her classmates — Nama Abdollah from Iraq, Fatuma Elmi from Somalia and Terusa Billy from Chuuk (a Micronesian island state) — have similar stories of coming to live in the U.S. from countries troubled with chaos and violence.

Last fall, Rockwood CDC reached out to the refugee and immigrant population at Barberry Village and asked what some of their needs were.

Tops on that list was learning the English language, said John David Pitts, the immigration and refugee services director at Rockwood CDC.

Pitts understood the need. He had spent 13 years in North Africa and the Middle East and said learning the language was his gateway into the culture.

“When I arrived I got off the plane and all I knew how to say was ‘I don’t speak Arabic,’” Pitts said. “It was every bit of probably a year before I really felt comfortable ... and language was a big part of that.”

For the mothers, much of their motivation to learn English comes from wanting to be more involved in their children’s lives at school and participate more fully in parent-teacher conferences and other activities.

There’s also things like navigating grocery stores or doctor’s visits where understanding English is necessary.

Plus, for a community that’s largely made up of displaced families, speaking English can offer a connection in what can seem like an isolating environment for a newcomer to America.

Pitts said nearly 70 people, mostly parents, signed up for the courses, which they marketed by going door-to-door in Barberry Village and other apartment complexes.

The students come from all corners of the world — Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Mexico, Turkey and Russia, just to name a few.

Abdollah, who described life in Iraq in just one word — “no” — said things in America have been “relaxed, relaxed, relaxed.”

For Elmi, who was a massage therapist in Somalia, learning English will make it possible to become licensed in America and also eventually pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. Tina wants to help translate for other people and Abdollah is hoping to expand the small childcare business she runs from her home.

Billy said her motivation to learn English is to be able to understand more, and be more understood.

Transition to American life can be challenging though, too, as the mothers look to keep their children connected to their roots. Tina said she initially felt sad when her children started speaking mostly English, but as a mother she understood.

“I say, ‘No, no, no, you speak our language too,” Tina said, who speaks Karen, a language from Myanmar and Thailand.

Billy, who works at the Holiday Inn, stresses to her children the importance of learning English and studying for better futures. She came to the U.S. in 2006 with two of her children, but also has three daughters that live with their grandmother in Guam.

Tina said a lot of times she will make her children sit down with her and explain some of the different words they use. That morning, she had gone over with them the differences between “afraid, scared, and fear.”

“Many words mean the same thing,” Tina lamented.

For the women, speaking English was a way to connect not only to their kids, but to each other as well. Tina described having to act out certain words she didn’t yet know the English translation for, and Billy nodded her head “yes” in agreement.

Pitts said he hopes to be able to expand their offerings and scale up the classes over the next year, but it will depend on whether or not the nonprofit organization receives grants and funding.

He said learning English is essential for the families to build relationships and stay engaged in the community.

“One of the big goals was not only to see parents increase their ability in English, but also to have more parent involvement in the schools,” Pitts said. “Hopefully that will be a positive outcome.”

When the women talk to family thousands of miles away, which is difficult because of unreliable Internet connections in their home countries, they report back on America’s friendly atmosphere and opportunities.

“Every day there is a problem in Iraq,” Abdollah says, using Pitts to translate. “It’s much safer here.”

“We sleep without fearing,” Elmi adds about living in Barberry Village. “We are very happy in America.”

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