Central College News

Featured: A Classroom Refuge

December 17, 2012

The Karen women Katie Gaebel works with at Meredith Middle School in Des Moines.


At Meredith Middle School in Des Moines, a group of 50- to 60-year-old women fist bump with Katie Gaebel, assistant professor of education, and burst into laughter. They are from Burma, or Myanmar, in Southeast Asia, but they think of themselves as Karen, their ethnic and linguistic group—the label that got them persecuted by their own government, the label that made them refugees.

Gaebel teaches English Language Learning (ELL) to these women every Saturday morning and brings three students from her Human Relations class with her to teach the younger students from third to fifth grades.

One Country, Two Names

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma and still called that by many refugees, has been in the news lately because the country has been making strides toward democracy, or at least a lessening of its terrible human rights record. After spending nearly two decades in detention, the political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and elected to Parliament in 2012. As the government continued releasing political prisoners and easing media restrictions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited, and in late November President Obama made the trip. He was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country.

Despite the gains Myanmar has made, some criticized the president for visiting too soon, citing political prisoners still in custody and continuing violence against ethnic people, some of whom are Karen.

“There are still pockets in the world where one group of people refuse to acknowledge that another group exists, who treat them worse than animals in their own home,” says Esther Streed, professor of education, who also teaches ELL to Karen refugees.

Close Quarters

Many of the Karen people live in refugee camps in Thailand, and most of the refugees in Iowa came here from camps. Mone Aye, a young Karen woman born in a Thai refugee camp, works with Karen children for the Des Moines public schools. She grew up in a camp of 300,000 people without heat or electricity. Although she did attend school, her home was made of bamboo, and there was virtually no health care. Rations were only rice, peppers and beans—and there was never enough. When she was three years old, the Burmese military attacked the camp where she was living, and her family had to flee to another.

“One of the common misconceptions with refugees is that they’re not trying or that they just have a free ticket here,” says Gaebel. “People often don’t know the story—the fact that most of the women I’m working with were in camps for seven or eight years and their children were born in these camps in Thailand. They watched their parents and brothers being slaughtered, or they saw their children being taken and sold as sex slaves.”

After 19 years in the camp, Aye and her family received refugee status and were placed in Iowa. Now they are struggling to make ends meet—and learn about American culture. In late November, she visited Gaebel’s Human Relations class to speak to students about her experience.

“We’re learning, but we need help from someone like you,” she said to the students. “To teach us how to live in America—get a job, apply to college. We don’t know where to get help.”

Not Exactly Paradise

Working with the Des Moines Public Schools—and Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC)—Gaebel and Streed are trying to get Aye and others like her the help they need. Gaebel teaches older students—who have virtually no English vocabulary—nonverbal communication like handshakes and high fives (thus the fist bump, picked up from a grandchild, no doubt). She also covers the basics, like asking for directions and understanding prices at the grocery store. But they are more interested in learning the Pledge of Allegiance and knowing what American Thanksgiving is about. Gaebel has learned that teaching refugees is about balancing practicality and culture.

The refugee women at their first Thanksgiving dinner.

“Personally, it has really humbled me,” she says. “It’s very easy for me to forget about my advantages and forget that only a few generations ago all of my family members were immigrants. Sitting down with the women having their first Thanksgiving meal and listening to how thankful they are to be saved and to be out of a refugee camp really puts my problems in perspective.”

Those problems weren’t over when they hit the rich soil of Iowa, unfortunately. Many can’t find work due to language difficulties, and thus they have severe financial problems. Their apartment complexes have bedbugs—and no lights in the parking lots.

“Here we have dreams. We can make plans,” says Aye. “But we need someone to teach use how to do things in America. America has a lot of rules. When we don’t know the resources, we stay home.”

With Liberty and Justice for All

The Des Moines school district is starting young with the Karen kids, teaching them what they need to know about American culture, and Central students are there to help out several hours every Saturday morning. First-year Jesse Merk, who wants to be a teacher, carpools to Des Moines with two other students to teach little lessons about pumpkins, American traditions and computers. They have taken the youngsters on short field trips to the library, the firehouse, the mall and the history museum.

Merk has gotten to know his students pretty well, and he’s heard some heartbreaking stories from his happy-go-lucky kids. Some don’t see their parents for three days at a time because they work night shifts. Others don’t have food at home or are evicted every 4-5 months.

“I thought those were stories from third-world countries,” he says. “I didn’t know it could be like that in America.

At the beginning of the semester, Gaebel, who is new to Central herself, put out the call for students who would like to join her at Meredith teaching ELL. Since her course has a service-learning component, they are satisfying a requirement, as well as making a difference.

“A lot of the students at Central are not exposed to refugees,” she says. “It’s really opening their eyes to how we educators need to be aware of what students are bringing into the classroom—and what they’re going home to. They can come in and be very happy and chipper and when they go home, there might not be heat or electricity. I think, for my students, it’s been a real cultural awakening.”

Merk says he has gained an appreciation for his own upbringing and education, as well as a stronger desire to teach, to help kids in need. Plus, he got to see a video of “Gangnam Style” performed in Karen.

“I’ve gained an ability to recognize kids in these situations rather than assume they’re fine,” says Merk. “They’re just people like us. The kids are hilarious once you see the past the uncomfortable situation.”

For Gaebel, that moment with the fist bumping was a breakthrough. No longer was she struggling to teach older women to hold pencils or open a book. Instead, they were all laughing together. She began to see them, not as women who had been through tragedy, but as women working hard to make something of themselves.

“They are extremely proud and extremely grateful to be in America,” Gaebel says.  “Although the women don’t have the English skills yet to express that, they exude this happiness and gratefulness to be accepted as part of the community. Their passion for wanting to learn things like the Pledge of Allegiance should remind us all of our own humble beginnings as Americans. I think these women embody that American struggle.”