For Burmese refugees in Howard, English lessons at work build school ties

Laurel Conran filled a two-inch binder with vocabulary sheets for a class she offers Burmese refugees who work in a Howard County warehouse. The first lesson was on basic introductions; the second, on American holidays. By Lesson 6, the topic was health insurance.

For this elementary school teacher, there is a compelling reason to volunteer as an English instructor for the region’s burgeoning Burmese refugee community: If you teach the parents, it helps teach their children. She has also built bridges in other ways.

Driving to class one June day, Conran passed Countryside Fellowship Church in Savage, where she has prayed with parents. Then she passed two apartment complexes, where she has buzzed many of their doorbells.

“And do you see this hill in front of us?” Conran asked. “That’s where many of them walk to get to work.”

The hill leads to Coastal Sunbelt Produce, a fruit and vegetable distributor. This year, the company and Bollman Bridge Elementary School forged a learning partnership. Conran, who teaches English for speakers of other languages at the school in Jessup, does the same for the company at lunchtime.

Most of the refugees work on assembly lines in a building cooled to temperatures in the 40s. Wearing skull caps and heavy jackets, they chop, package and seal fruit.

Conran walked into the cafeteria, filled with the aroma of curry dishes. About two dozen Burmese workers, mostly parents, were huddled in small groups around an English speaker, who was practicing with them how to call in sick for work.

Conran’s teaching partner hugged her. When the lessons started in May, the partner spoke no English.

“What is your name?” Conran asked.

“My name is Fam Chua.”

“What is your job?”

Chua furrowed her eyebrows, then said: “I . . . make . . . salsa.”

Jean West Lewis, a community outreach specialist for the Howard school system, said there can be hurdles to connecting with refugee parents. Based on experience in their homeland, the parents might distrust authorities. Their ignorance of American customs might lead them to take a hands-off approach to their children’s education.

“It used to be that we would expect the parent to come to school to seek help,” West Lewis said. “This is a new, novel approach by going to their workplace and making it easy for parents to learn about us and how to work with us.”

In 2007, West Lewis told Bollman Bridge parents to get ready: A group of Burmese refugees was coming to their 600-student school from an Asian country, also known as Myanmar, that has been in turmoil under a repressive military regime.

That year, about 14,000 Burmese refugees were admitted to the United States. This year, the State Department is expecting 18,500, sprinkled throughout the country, from Milwaukee to Louisville to Howard and other suburbs of Washington.

In the past four years, school data show, Howard schools have registered 163 Burmese refugee children.

In fall 2007, Conran’s English class at the school jumped from about 20 students — mostly Spanish speakers — to 70. Many of the newcomers spoke the languages of Burma, such as Burmese, Zophei and Chin.

The school hired two more teachers to work with those students, as well as an interpreter.

Sometimes, problems arose. When Burmese students got into fights with other students while playing soccer, Conran helped discover a source of the dispute: The students had different understandings about the rules of the game. The assistant principal, a soccer fan, helped start a tournament to facilitate cultural understanding.

Even as the Burmese students were picking up English, Conran noticed that it was hard to connect with parents. After she made brownies for her students, one of them invited Conran to teach her mother how to use an oven. She seized the chance.

“A group of parents came to watch me,” Conran recalled. “They were all using it for storage! When I turned on the gas, they all jumped back.”

Lisa Chertok, a member of the PTA and a food buyer for Coastal Sunbelt, suggested that Conran could find many Burmese parents at her workplace.

Chertok and Conran crafted a curriculum. They matched students with parents. They arranged for an immigration expert to speak to parents about issues with a landlord. A police officer visited one day to tell the refugees they no had reason to fear U.S. authorities.

Chertok said changes in the workplace have been swift: more smiles, more handshakes, more conversations starting with, “How is your family?”

Bollman Bridge Principal Jonathan Davis said the initiative holds promise for the school as well.

“We think we can make everyone feel more comfortable visiting the school and being a part of our community if we encourage ideas like the language table,” said Davis, who has participated in the venture. “They are coming to school. The fathers asked to have a meeting to get to know me. It’s small, but it’s a start.”

One day at Coastal Sunbelt, Bawi Sung, a native Zophei speaker, said: “My English is coming. I am learning many things.” Here lessons are about more than language.

She has learned that it’s not a good idea to leave young children at home by themselves, even for a short time. And when the fire alarm beeps, it is a signal to replace the battery.

Most important, she learned that her child was old enough for school. Before she spoke with Chertok, she didn’t know how to register.

“Next year,” Sung said, “she will be in kindergarten.”

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.

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