Wave of Burmese immigration impacting schools, community: Part 2 - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Wave of Burmese immigration impacting schools, community: Part 2


Waterloo is experiencing a boom in the number of immigrants from Myanmar, formerly known as "Burma".  A nearly 50 year long civil war and religious persecution are two factors driving the Burmese to leave their homes.  The community and several local schools are now working to adapt to the Burmese boom.

Many Burmese families fleeing their country first end up in refugee camps in neighboring Thailand.  Some stay there for years before attempting to move to other regions, including the U.S.  Some of those now in Iowa first lived in bigger cities like Chicago and Philadelphia.  But word spread quickly through family and friends that in Waterloo--they could find good jobs, affordable housing, a solid faith community, and most importantly, acceptance.

Kyaw Lwin, his wife Monica and their four children recently moved to Waterloo.  They left behind a difficult life in Myanmar.

"In our country, the Burmese military took order and then they took our animals and our land," said Kyaw Lwin.

Like many Burmese immigrants, Kyaw found work with Tyson Foods in Waterloo.  His four children all attend Cedar Valley Catholic Schools.

"I'm happy to live here because there's a lot of people who care about us," said Stella Lwin, age 11.

Over the past two years, CVCS has seen the number of Burmese enrolled climb to nearly a hundred students pre-k through 12th grades.  Half of those attend sacred heart.  The biggest hurdle--helping these students learn their new language.

One interpreter has been brought on staff so far.  In the future, the school would like to add English classes for adults.  But for now...

"We think that the earlier--especially at the elementary level--the sooner we can get them started in our schools and immersed in English, they're going to become the translators for their families," said Julie Niemeyer, Sacred Heart principal.

Molly Juza is a Spanish teacher by trade, but is now spending a lot of time learning Burmese, serving as the "English as a Second Language" instructor for Columbus High School.

"75 percent of my day is in Spanish.  SO to have just 25 percent of the day teaching these guys English is definitely not enough.  It's something every teacher has to realize.  They're not only teaching science or social studies, they're teaching English through their content areas," Juza said.

Juza says there's been a big learning curve for everyone in adapting to the Burmese boom. Teachers are striving to get these new students engaged in not just academics, but extra curricular and social activities, too.  To overcome communication barriers, they also try to tailor how they educate to help every student learn.

"Most of the challenge is trying to get teachers on board with making everything they do visual.  I think at the elementary level, it's a little easier because learning is so hands-on when you're a little kid.  When you're in high school, things are a little more auditory instead of visual.  So we're really working on that and making sure everything they say is visual, too," said Juza.

Teachers and students have learned a lot from this new class of immigrants about their culture and hardships, and are inspired by how a firm faith has guided them through it all.

In the 1990s, Waterloo experienced a major influx of Bosnians, as they fled their war torn country.  Now a similar pattern is being seen with the Burmese.  It's estimated up to 800 Burmese are living in the Cedar Valley now.  To help in their transition, a refugee center will soon be opening here.

That's motivation for those already here to stay, in a place that's feeling more and more like home. 

"I would like to stay here forever," said Stella Lwin.

The refugee center will help Burmese immigrants meet their basic needs--from clothing to housing, and help connect them to other resources in the community.

It's made possible through a $150,000 appropriation from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.  The exact location of the Waterloo office hasn't been determined yet.

A number of small businesses are springing up to cater to the Burmese growth, including an international grocery store that recently opened in downtown Waterloo.

Once every few weeks, traveling priests even conduct their sermons at Sacred Heart Parish in Burmese to help accommodate the expanding immigrant population.

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