In Your Midst
ESL on the Move
Summer 99

Imagine you are an elderly immigrant with limited or no English skills. You have never spoken a language other than your first, which you might not be able to read or write. Or perhaps you are well educated, recently arrived to Seattle, but have little knowledge of America or the English language. You can begin to get a sense of what it might be like to try to become a citizen.

The English as a Second Language (ESL) program at St. James recently started a new project to serve older refugees and immigrants. With support from the King County Housing Authority (KCHA), volunteer tutors will be matched with residents of KCHA housing sites in Shoreline and Bellevue. St. James tutors will help students improve their English with the goal of becoming United States citizens. To speak, read and write English fluently is a crucial step for most refugees and immigrants as evidenced by the following story.

Gatsengsan (not his real name) immigrated in the spring of 1979, at a time when the Vietnamese Army had just invaded Cambodia under the regime of the Khmer Rouge. Many Lao nationals who had been in holding camps on the Thai sides of the border were quickly sent to other countries in order to make room for the flood of Khmers. Here and there makeshift English classes or Bible studies were held, but the business of living precluded most educational efforts. Gatsengsan stood in line for hours just to secure water and return it to the bamboo and tarp shelter where his family lived. It was the same for rice, toothpaste, cooking pots, clothing and mail.

Once in Seattle, Gatsengsan settled into housing at Holly Park surrounded by friends and some family along with teachers and case managers who were ready to teach and help. But he was overcome by post-traumatic stress syndrome due to the loss of his beloved country and the strangeness of this new place. He stayed mostly indoors letting others care for him.

Last year Gatsengsan began working with a St. James ESL tutor. The tutor, a Rhodes Scholar in Laos in the 1960's, could speak some Lao and certainly understood the plight of his student. Gatsengsan has made great progress not only in English, but feels his self-confidence has been boosted as well. Now, wishing he had studied English sooner, he has filled out an N-400 (application) and is waiting for his citizenship test.

Helping an elderly refugee or immigrant obtain citizenship is a very life- enhancing and horizon-expanding activity for those who participate. If you wish to lend your talents to the St. James ESL program, call 206/382-4511 to request an information packet. Visit the ESL Website

Chris Koehler is Director of Ministries to Immigrants at St. James Cathedral.


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