Burmese Seniors Learn English, Against The Clock

By  Stina Sieg
March 12, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Senior refugees from Burma work hard to fit into their new life in Phoenix.

Last Wednesday was a typical one at the Helen Drake Senior Center in West Phoenix. There was line dancing in the cafeteria and sewing in the craft room. And in a meeting room down the hall, there was English class.

Teacher Katie Stevens held up a colorful map of the United States.

“Okay. Where do we live?” she asked the class of seniors, many wearing headscarves and flip-flops.

“Yellow,” answered one woman.

“Okay,” Stevens continued, “And what is our state?”

“Arizona?” said the lady.

“Arizona,” Stevens said, repeating for emphasis. “Arizona. Arizona.”

Two days a week, Stevens teaches elder refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Most are Muslims who have spent their lives in fear of religious conflict and a military dictatorship. Some have lived for years in refugee camps. Stevens said some have come to the US not knowing how to use a stove, a telephone or shower.

“You will see some of them who have not held a pencil before, who are now just beginning to write,” she explained.

Now they must, if they want to become American citizens. That is the ultimate of goal these classes, run by the Area Agency on Aging. Refugees over 65 can receive a monthly stipend from the federal government. It’s a little more than $700 dollars a month and it is the only money most of these seniors have. It runs out if they don’t get their citizenship within seven years of arriving in this country. But to get that, they have to pass a citizenship test – in English.

Stevens said she and her sister, who also teaches here, know what a monumental task that is.

“But we’re teachers,” Stevens said. “We’re always teachers. So, we work with where they are.”

And where they are is at the very beginning of learning this new, complicated language.

Many are like Kyaw Ket, 75, who has been here almost seven years. He has been studying English nearly that long. He can introduce himself in English, but that is about it.

Unlike many of his classmates, he can read in his mother tongue, but he is plagued with memory problems. He carries around a little book filled with important information, like addresses and his grown children’s birthdays.

Through a translator, Ket said he wants to be able to communicate with people in this country. When he goes to the market, he can’t talk to anyone, and it’s frustrating. Once, he got lost in the city and did not know what to do. But at least, when he takes his citizenship test later this year, he will have the help of a translator because of his memory loss.

Most of his classmates will not have that safety net, however. On any given day, they are flipping through calendars to learn about numbers and dates or sifting through coupons to learn about money. They are trying to get a working understanding of the basic stuff, both for everyday life and their looming citizenship tests. It is incredibly slow going, but they are the lucky ones.

Jolie Mbonyingabo runs the refugee program for the Area Agency on Aging. There isn’t room for every senior who wants it, she said.

“They are home waiting,” she explained, “and they keep calling us: ‘When are we going to start?’”

They aren’t just Burmese. Her group works with seniors from around the world: Cubans, Russians, Syrians. And Mbonyingabo said they all face the same problem, the same seven-year deadline before their federal benefits run out.

“They see us as we have solutions for everything, but we don’t,” she said. “Yeah, we really don’t. We can just try what we can.”

What does the program really need now? Mbonyingbabo is adamant: more volunteer teachers.

For more information about the Area Agency on Agency or volunteering for its language programs, call (602) 264 4357.