Learning curves

Editorial Notebook

April 16, 2005|By Marjorie Valbrun

THE CLASSROOM decorated with bright posters listing the alphabet, days of the week and primary colors was as inviting as any kindergarten class. Anna Shraga sat at the rectangular table surrounded by six empty chairs and recounted the trials and tribulations of her students.

"I started by having them trace letters so that they could start recognizing letters," she said. "I drew clocks to help them understand the concept of time."

Almost on cue, Habibo Omar, 22, appeared at the door, smiling and pointing at the watch on her wrist.

Mrs. Shraga, who weeks before had lectured her students about tardiness, got the hint. She waved Ms. Omar in.

"Good afternoon," Ms. Omar said in accented English, beaming proudly. Dahabo Suleiman, 42, soon followed, along with Kasidha Omar, 42. Then the men arrived: Yussuf Ali, 32, Achmed Sulinman, 65, Ms. Suleiman's brother-in-law, and Daud Lesow, 66.

Class was now in session for Baltimore's newest students, Somali Bantus who spent the last decade in refugee camps after fleeing civil war, persecution and enslavement by the lighter-skinned majority in their native Somalia.

They began arriving here in 2003 as part of a federal resettlement program to relocate 14,000 Somali Bantus to cities throughout the United States. As an ethnic minority, they suffered brutal treatment in Somalia and fled to neighboring Kenya, where they lived in miserable refugee camps. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of several organizations nationwide taking part in the relocation, has already resettled 200 Bantus in Baltimore, thrusting them overnight into new lives replete with unfamiliar indoor plumbing and electrical appliances. They are learning to read and write English even though they are mostly illiterate and speak a dialect, Af Maay, that is not a written language.

That's where Mrs. Shraga comes in. She teaches two classes daily at the Baltimore Resettlement Center, a consortium of refugee assistance organizations in Highlandtown. The language program is operated by Baltimore City Community College. The courses run six weeks, but the Bantus often repeat them before they have a grasp of "survival language" - enough English to handle 911 calls and interactions with police and their children's teachers. They learn about body parts and how to describe pain to a doctor, how to fill out job applications and otherwise negotiate new lives that might as well be on Mars.

The Bantus' eventual assimilation plays a part in Baltimore's long-term growth, since the city is relying on new immigrants and refugees to help reverse large population declines. The IRC has relocated 1,000 refugees here since 1999. More than 10,000 refugees were resettled in metro Baltimore between 1990 and 2001.

The Bantu newcomers are taught English with pictures and through oral repetition.

"Everything was so hard for me," Ms. Omar said through a translator. "I didn't know anything." Now she knows several English phrases.

Mrs. Shraga, who arrived here in 1993, was an assistant principal back home in Uzbekistan before she was driven out by anti-Semitism. In her current job, she has to teach some of the students how to hold a pencil.

"Some of them are smart cookies and they learn fast," Mrs. Shraga said. Others can't make sense of a melange of strange words and refuse to participate in class. At the end of six weeks, they know very little English.

"Then they see their friends working and making money and they come back and say, `Teacher, I want to learn.'"

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