Monday, July 27, 2009

Language of music

WORCESTER — For this full-time nurse, volunteering to teach guitar to teenagers seemed like a welcome break from work pressure. But Linda Healey knew there was a catch — the students could speak only a scant amount of English.

Struggling to communicate, she asked if any in the class knew a folk song from their native country, but they answered with blank stares. Shifting nervously in her seat, Ms. Healey picked up her guitar and serenaded them with a few bars of “You Are My Sunshine.”

“I don’t know how much you understand,” she said as she strummed. The four students, ages 15 to 19, were orphaned refugees from three countries with three different languages who can barely talk to one another beyond a hello.

But here they were sitting in the cavernous basement of St. Stephen’s Church on a hot summer afternoon, torn from their families by oppressive regimes and corrupt governments, partly to learn guitar, but mostly to speak the language of music. Despite the communication chasm, they were eager to pick away on the strings.

For the moment their troubles and language barriers were put aside. “They know they have to learn English, but they’re more excited about the guitar,” said Catharine Landrigan, clinical social worker for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program. Ms. Landrigan and a staff based in Worcester are responsible for about 80 cases in New England, all of them with similar stories: orphaned children who fled the savagery of war, the abuse of oppressive governments or the victimization of sex or drug trafficking.

Through the voluntary services of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program is a child welfare program that matches the children with foster parents at the end a long bureaucratic chain that starts at the United Nations and weaves its way through federal and state agencies. There are 17 refugee foster care programs in the United States, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site.

In one chair, holding an acoustic guitar, was 19-year-old Haroun Bakhit. He immigrated legally to the United States three years ago from Sudan and likes watching music videos on Black Entertainment Television, listening to traditional African music on the Internet, and hanging out at the pizza parlor with his friends. Haroun wants to learn the guitar because music brings out many emotions he wants to express. Before he landed in this country, violent rebel groups in his Sudanese village burned down his home, separating him and his brother from their parents.

They and other refugees spent months wandering and begging for food while witnessing starvation and dodging murderous rebels and preying lions. They eventually found their way to a United Nations refugee camp.

Sitting next to Haroun are Thang Lam Sing, 16, and his sister Nuam Hau Sing, 15, both of whom escaped from Myanmar. Nuam likes American fast food. McDonald’s, pizza … whatever. She also likes Britney Spears and Christian music. Thang prefers rice over french fries and is a big fan of Bon Jovi. Both want to learn the guitar so they can perform at their church and play traditional music from their native village.

Matched with a foster family, they have been in the United States since June. Raised by their mother after their father died, Nuam and Thang fled their village after months of intimidation from the Myanmar army, which was searching for their older sister when she ran away after being raped by a soldier. Thang and Nuam were eventually smuggled into Malaysia and, like Haroun, found their way to a United Nations refugee camp.

The fourth teenager is a girl from Latin America who could not be interviewed because of unresolved legal issues.

“The children who come are survivors, they are resilient,” said Mary Bartholomew, the program’s senior director. But to convert those survivor skills to the pace of modern life is challenging. For most, crossing the street safely is learned as a toddler, but for a 15-year-old refugee from a part of the world where cars or traffic didn’t exist, it is a new living skill. For others, adjusting to a new country without family plus reliving the nightmarish memories of war and abuse can be a barrier to building new relationships with foster parents.

But despite experiencing more trauma than most people will ever imagine, most of the children in this program adjust well to their new lives, attending public school and eventually college.

But there is no school in July, which leaves Ms. Bartholomew and Ms. Landrigan with the challenge of how to fill the teenager’s summers. The have planned for field trips, as well as photography and English-as-a-second-language classes. But the guitar lessons are by far the most popular. With bingo tables stacked against the wall and the fluorescent lights humming to the music, this impromptu quartet’s first stab at guitar hero glory was a bit rough, but it didn’t dampen their spirits. “In jamming, everyone helps each other,” said Ms. Healey, rallying her class to attempt their newly taught chords. Then for one brief moment, everyone was strumming together, kind of in unison. Grinning at each other for the first time, they knew they were talking the same language.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On the job: Jacqueline E. Dunbar, School bus driver, AA Transportation, Shrewsbury

Monday, June 22, 2009
Why are school buses yellow?
“Hopefully, so that people driving around can see us.”
It seems like fewer children are taking the bus now than when we were young. Would you agree?
“Shrewsbury is more populated now, so I think more students are taking the bus. Nowadays we drop kids off door to door because there isn’t a sidewalk or proper walkway for the child to get to the bus stop safely. A lot of streets in Shrewsbury are very narrow and don’t have sidewalks.”
Once in a while you read a story in the paper about a child who didn’t get off the bus — the driver didn’t spot-check when they got back to base and so the child sits on the bus all day. Do drivers check the bus front to back when they finish a run?
“Without a doubt. After every single run, not just when you get back to base, you check your bus for students.”
What is your favorite part of the job?
“The kids, especially the little ones. They’re so adorable. They lose their teeth at that age and they get so excited and they’re showing everybody. Some are almost toothless, smiling big. They ask me a lot of questions like, ‘What’s that light for?’ They’re cute.”
I would have guessed that your favorite part of the job is when they cancel school.
“I watch the news the night before and I’m like a kid watching to see if school is closed. Who else wakes up in the morning to see if they have to go to work or not? It’s funny, my mom laughs. But then it’s like: Ugh, an extra day in the summer.”
What is your least favorite part of the job?
“Driving in the snow.”
Don’t those buses have good traction?
“No. People think that because they’re so big and heavy that they do well, but they don’t. I think years ago they used to put chains on the wheels, but they’re not four-wheel drive. They have some traction, but you can get stuck in very simple situations, like steep hills. There are a lot of steep hills in Shrewsbury.”
What grades do you pick up and drop off?
“K through 12. There are numerous runs per day. I get up at 4:30 every morning. The first group are the high school kids, which I begin picking up at 6:36 a.m. I drop them off at the high school at 7:05. At 7:20 I pick up the middle school kids and drop them off at 8. I then pick up the kids in Grades 1 to 4 at 8:15, and drop them off at the elementary school at 8:40. I then go back to base and then I pick up the kindergartners at school at 11:30.”
There is a new no-idling law in Massachusetts, which prevents school buses from running their engines in front of school. What rules do you have to follow?
“If we are loading or unloading children and we are sitting in front of the building for more than 5 minutes, then the engine has to be off.”
What about the dead of winter?
“Same thing. Yeah, it’s cold, especially this past winter.”
How many verses to “The Wheels on the Bus” do you know?
“The little ones learn it at school, then they sing it on the bus. Naturally they want me to sing along with them.”
Compiled by correspondent Richard Price.