In Your Midst
ESL on the Move
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.
Back To Summer 1999 Issue