Monday, January 30, 2012

Immigrant students get a taste of American of dining, politics

CARRBORO - The students in Laura Campagna's ESL class have lost classmates to war, survived refugee camps and forged a home in a foreign land with a different language and customs.Hser Ku, Eh Say Paw and Baso Gay Paw have lived in the United States for only a few years. Their English is improving, but it's hard when they speak primarily Karen - an ethnic Burmese language - at home and at Carrboro High School.
The girls, who are planning for college, say education is very important, and so is family. When not in school, they study or help at home with chores or younger siblings. Friday nights are sometimes for friends, and they also do homework together, they said.
"Our parents want their children to be educated and hope our future will be beautiful," Ku said.
Only about half of Campagna's 11th- and 12th-grade students - 12 are from Myanmar (formerly Burma), two from Mexico and one from Russia - have ever been to a restaurant. A class field trip for lunch this month at Panzanella gave them the experience of dining out and a short lesson from restaurant manager Paola Cisarano in local vs. corporate businesses and why organic food is important.
The students studied the restaurant's menu the day before, so they were familiar with many items. Most chose salad or soup; pizza or pasta were popular choices, too.
A few students sampled each other's plates; all were quiet, and there were few leftovers.
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton joined them for lunch, sharing his thoughts about government and environmental and consumer issues. If they ever see a need in the community, let him know, he said.
As they became comfortable with Chilton, the students began to ask questions about his job: Does he like it? Why did he choose to be mayor? Where did he come from? They snapped group pictures with him before heading back to class.
The experience was a good one, they said. In their own countries, political leaders are not accessible. They came to this country knowing very little about democracy or the rights they have here, Campagna said.
"When you don't have rights, you don't have any idea what they are," she said.
Myanmar is run by a restrictive military government, and Campagna said those who live in the Thailand refugee camps subsist on U.N. food aid dropped from helicopters - fish paste, beans, oil and rice. They are forbidden from growing their own food, although some risk being attacked and killed to grow a few crops outside the camps.
Thwang Khoi, 21, and his family were refugees in Malaysia before coming to America. They are Chin, an ethnic group largely from western Myanmar who speak a language by the same name. He does not speak Karen and finds it hard sometimes to communicate with the other students, he said. He practices his English through writing, reading or on the job at UNC's Lenoir Dining Hall, where he makes sushi. One day, he would like to be a professional writer, maybe for a magazine, he said.
Khoi had seen Chilton before, in televised Board of Aldermen meetings. He also saw him walking down the street a few times. That would never happen in his homeland, he said.
There, people with power or authority are afraid to go out without armed bodyguards, and most people would be afraid to approach them, because they risk being thrown in jail or losing everything they have, he said.
"If you have power, you have to be careful," he said, because someone may try to kill you. "They don't like government at all."
Education also is limited in Burma to those who can afford it, Khoi said. Many of Campagna's students said they're getting a better education in Carrboro. Plus, people here are nice and seem more comfortable with them than in other places, they said.
A few have American friends with whom they spend time and do homework; it's a good way to learn about each other's culture and to practice more English, Hu said. It's hard to make American friends though, and they mostly stick together, she and the other girls said.
Campagna tells her students they may have to take the first step.
"(Other students) don't want to make you feel bad. They don't even know if you speak English. You may have to say hi first," she said. "It's as simple as that to make a connection."

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