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.

No comments: