An unofficial "cultural care and advocacy team" is supporting the needs of Karen and Karenni students from Burma and their families. The families began moving into the Alta Vista de la Montana, the agricultural housing unit in North Delta, late last spring and their numbers continued to grow over the summer.
Delta High School counselor Shawna Magtutu says the school district was aware that students and their families would be arriving as resettlement refugees from Burma (also called Myanmar) for the 2012-2013 school year, but they did not know how many.
Magtutu prepared materials for an information meeting about the Karen and Karenni peoples with district staff before school started. She included a short movie showing what their village life was like in Burma.
She also reached out to the community, to agencies which would be having contact with the Karen/Karenni. Fifteen people attended the initial meeting. The principals of the Delta elementary, middle and high schools were there as were the Delta police chief and a representative from Delta County Health Department. There was substantial interest and commitment on the part of all attending to work together to find ways to help the Karen/Karenni adjust to their new country and culture.
Molly Greenlee, director of the Migrant Education Program, helped with the logistics and coordination and the funding for the meeting.
The group of 15 is in regular communication by e-mail, sharing resources and challenges. The 15 will probably meet three times a year or so, Magtutu said.
The challenges came immediately. The children had no legal documents. They had to have physicals before entering school and the parents were working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Also the parents had no transportation. Pastor James Conley and First Baptist Church members helped get the children to doctors for their physicals. Peter Saw Htoo, a Karen man fluent in English, has been a bridge between the Karen/Karenni and the community.
High school English teacher Paul Shean taught a summer workshop and knows the Karen/Karenni families and students. During the school day he teaches an all-immersion English class. Karen/Karenni students also attend skill labs for one hour a day, a time with a tutor who gives extra support for their additional classes. Two classes out of seven each day are set aside for Karen/Karenni, and all other students who need help with English, to support their learning progress.
Shean started Pride Ambassadors, selected by teachers and principals. Magtutu says they are good kids, helpful, respectful, mostly juniors and seniors, who wanted to do something toward building bridges. They have established a buddy program. Two or three American students will adopt two or three Karen/Karenni students and they set out to learn about each other. They made a list of questions so the American kids can learn about Karen/Karenni history and the Karen/Karenni kids can learn about American history. They plan to participate together in football, volleyball and soccer games. "It's very impromptu and very meaningful," said Magtutu.
Members of the DHS Student Council borrowed the short movie Magtutu showed to school staff and are showing it in classrooms, sharing the story of their new classmates. "The students are reaching out and making emotional connections with real people," Magtutu said.
"We are starting week five and all the students are continuing to come to school."
Magtutu sees primary challenges as translation, transportation, language and determining credits for graduating Karen/Karenni seniors.
First Baptist Church is on the front line of tutoring students beyond the high school level.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, volunteers at First Baptist drive two church buses out to Alta Vista de la Montana apartments on Hwy. 50 and return to First Baptist with buses filled with Delta students. The students come for tutoring by church members, volunteer teachers from the school district and other volunteers from the community.
Desiree Beilfuss heads up the tutoring program. She is a special education teacher by profession and works in the Delta Vision program. Beilfuss has two co-workers, Cheryl Grange, also a teacher, and Paula Hampton, all volunteer.
Beilfuss said the tutoring program started the second week after school. Pastor James Conley and some of the youth of the church — Abby Conley, Aimee Doak, Kimi Doak, Hannah Hampton and Faith Hampton — visited the Karen and Karenni families at their apartments the day after school started. The parents and children had realized by day two that they would need help.
Pastor Conley came back to the church aware that tutoring would be a mission of the church. Hampton, Beilfuss and Grange stepped up. Sixty-two students signed up for tutoring, and the program was up and running the following Tuesday, Aug. 28.
The small children read. Students in grades 3-5 work on social studies. Middle school students usually bring their homework and tutors help them complete it. "There are a few students who can't read at all and we help them with basic skills," Beilfuss said. "The students are a great bunch of kids who want help, who want to do the work," she said.
Beilfuss said Anna Lee Couch, a teacher at Delta Middle School, sent an e-mail to all employees of the school district telling them of this volunteer program. Four school district teachers are tutoring in the First Baptist program. The culture of the Karen/Karenni children requires them to show respect and they won't speak up in class. The volunteer district tutors want to build relationships with their students.
One teacher at Delta Middle School wrote a letter for a student being tutored, recommending her for the National Honor Society because the student's grades met the criteria. The student couldn't read the letter and brought it with her for her tutoring session. The tutors read it to her and helped her fill out the needed paperwork, Beilfuss said.
A new tutor joined the Baptist volunteers on Sept. 13, making a total of 21.
The following information is excerpted from a Sept. l, 2006, The Washington File, a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U. S. Department of State.
"The ethnic Karens are one of more than 100 minority groups in Myanmar [also called Burma]. They are predominately concentrated in the hill country along the border with Thailand. While Myanmar [Burma] has no official state religion, about 89 percent of the country practice Buddhism. The Karen are predominately Christian, though also comprised of Buddhists and animists. . . . Following persecution in Myanmar [Burma], close to 140,000 predominately Karen refugees have fled to rudimentary camps in Thailand across the border. . . . There are three main Karen languages, and a number of dialects.
"The department [U.S. Department of State] announced Aug. 30  that Karen refugees who meet all eligibility requirements of the U.S. Refugee Admissions and Resettlement Program will not be excluded for having 'provided material support' to the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic secessionist movement that has been active in southern Burma [also called Myanmar] since that country's independence from Britain in 1948.
"In May , U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice first authorized a waiver of the resettlement restrictions for potentially eligible Karen refugees in the Tham Hin camp in Thailand's western Ratchaburi province."
Future articles will address how the local Karen and Karenni came to be resettled in Delta, how and where they have found agricultural employment, where they worship and other matters of interest.blog comments powered by Disqus