Kennewick Family Learning Center reaches out to refugees

KENNEWICK -- The small unit at Central Park Apartments in Kennewick has no couch, no bed, no easy chairs or TV.

And for good reason.

Four computers sit on a long table in what otherwise would be the only bedroom. And a makeshift classroom, including alphabet and color charts, occupies the front room at the Family Learning Center in unit B-1.

This is where refugees from Burma and other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa who live at Central Park meet each week with volunteer teachers to practice English. They also get help developing computer skills and homework tutoring for their children.

"This is a very special place for us," said Seng Mun, 18, who immigrated with her parents to Kennewick in late July. "Everybody loves this place," said Mun, who is attending Kennewick High School.

Despite a recent snowy day that canceled public school classes, the center was crowded with children and adults eager to learn.

Members of the Family of Faith Church in Kennewick started the center about a year ago to help refugees who have come to the Tri-Cities with assistance of World Relief. Though Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989 after a military takeover, the immigrants prefer to be called Burmese.

Theresa Roosendaal, one of the founders of the center, said it began as a desire by some church members to befriend Burmese immigrants by helping them understand English, teaching them how to cook in an American kitchen and helping their children with education.

Seeing the need was one thing, but meeting it was another.

Coming to America was more than a cultural shock. For some, said Roosendaal, it was "like walking from the jungle into the 21st century."

Church volunteers initially tried to help by going to the Burmese families individually, but that didn't work as well as hoped. There had to be another way.

It came as a one-time $7,500 grant to the church, with no strings attached.

The money has paid for renting the apartment to serve as the Family Learning Center, and to purchase the computers that help the immigrants improve their English and learn typing and some internet savvy.

The center has become a vital part of the refugees' lives by offering free training in English for about 60 men, women and children from the Burmese community at Central Park. It also has been available to refugees from other countries who are learning English, including people from Somalia and Iraq.

Learning together

This week at the center, seven Burmese children who attend Westgate Elementary School in Kennewick, were doing their homework with the help of Roosendaal's 17-year-old daughter, Katy.

Each child had to answer math questions, write answers to incomplete sentences and fix misspelled words.

"What is wrong with that word (firend)?" Katy asked Htoo Moo Say, who studied the sentence for a few seconds before penciling in the answer, "friend."

At the other end of the table, Siwakorn Khamphile, who is from Thailand, received one-on-one help from Katy's mother, Theresa, in understanding how to use punctuation and quotation marks. It was Khamphile's first day at the center.

"(Children) learn the language real quick," said Roosendaal, noting that, unlike their parents, they aren't afraid to use new words even though they might make mistakes.

A week earlier, volunteer Kristy Wolters used a picture book to teach a dozen children about Thanksgiving. The children, bundled in coats, sat around a long table as Wolters opened the book.

"What is a feast?" Wolters asked, pointing to a story in the book about the first Thanksgiving in America.

"Food," said one boy. "Lots of food."

"Yes. And turkey," Wolters added. "Turkey is like a chicken, only bigger," she explained.

The children's eyes showed they understood.

Wolters passed the book around for each child to see, then asked each to read from it if they could. Some did, some didn't.

Another child figured it out: "Thanksgiving is every November."

Wolters was pleased, and the children were smiling.

"What does a turkey say?" Wolters asked, then answered: "Gobble, gobble! That's how we say it in English."

The children started laughing.

In the room next door, Mun was helping Roosendaal coach older Burmese to learn computer skills.

Mun said she had never heard about the internet until 2007. "I saw the word and said, 'What is internet?' " she recalled.

With no internet service available in her village in Burma, Mun said she would ride a motorbike into China to visit an internet cafe. But she found it too expensive to do often.

Motivated to learn

"People who come here want a better life," said Mun, who did a lot of self study in English while waiting to emigrate in Malaysia. She's eager to continue her education and obtain a college degree in drafting.

"She is very motivated," Roosendaal said, adding that most Burmese are eager learners, especially if they see how it can lead to a better job.

"They are a very communal people. It's heartwarming to see how they care for each other," she said.

One of the computer students, Win Kho, smiled tentatively, unsure if her English was good enough, then politely explained why she comes to the center weekly.

"I want to teach my children and right now I can't," said Kho, who is 27 and came to Kennewick two years ago. She said she wants to learn English so she can raise her two small sons to be literate in "the one language all Americans speak."

Like many Burmese parents, Kho wants to know enough to help her children when they begin attending public school. That's why the homework assistance that is offered Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays brings parents in to learn alongside their children, Roosendaal said.

Roosendaal said the center has survived more than a year on volunteers and that initial $7,500 grant, but something more must happen to keep it going.

The Family of Faith Church and the Ukrainian Pentecostal Church, which meet at the same location in Kennewick, are providing some -- but not all -- support in the coming year.

"We still have a gap," Roosendaal said.

People who want to help or donate can call Pastor Dan Wolters at Family of Faith Church, 783-6261.