Chalkbeat’s recent series, Lost In Translation, jointly published with the Indianapolis Star and WFYI Public Media, aimed to shed light on the challenges schools face to help English language learners, especially those newly arrived from other countries, thrive.
But helping immigrant children at school also requires understanding their lives before coming to the United States and their broader experiences as newcomers to Indiana.
For Indianapolis, one of the biggest and fastest-growing immigrant student groups is children from Burma.
Last week, Chalkbeat brought together four people who shared their stories in the series for a panel discussion at the Central Library. For the full conversation, go here. But, thanks to WFYI, you can now view a 10-minute highlight video (below).
Be prepared to be moved.
Two of the panelists, May Oo Mutraw and and Elly Mawi, spoke passionately about the hardships Burmese families have in Indiana.
Most of them, Mutraw said, were fleeing a 66-year civil war that upended their lives.
“They lived literally in the war zone, said Mutraw, founder of Indianapolis’ Burmese Community Center for Education. “Their villages were burned down. They fled into the forest.”
Schooling, she said, was also a casualty.
“We are talking about a generation who did not get to go to school — the whole generation,” she said.
But in Indiana, with the help of public schools, they had an opportunity for a much better future. They understand the American dream.
“I personally always believed that through education we can liberate ourselves,” Mutraw said. “Education, for me and for my family, is a practice of freedom.”
Mawi, a top student graduating this year from Perry Township’s Southport High School, once sat on a dirt floor to learn from volunteer teachers in a refugee camp in Malaysia, said even in her community people don’t realize what many Burmese children have been through.
“We come here in the first place because we are at the line of life and death,” she said. “It’s whether you die or if you fight and you escape.”
Mawi praised Southport as a great place for English language learners and Perry Township as welcoming. But still, even there, not everyone understands how common her story is.
“A lot of times, people think the reason we come here is because of greed,” she said. “We get a lot of misunderstanding for that.”
Near the end of the event, Mawi turned to the audience to praise her teachers, several of whom were in the audience.
Some of them were moved to tears.
“This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, but not just this every day,” she said. “If you are a teacher sitting here tonight, or watching on live stream, thank you for what you have done.”
Mawi then addressed English as a new language teachers directly.
“As an ENL student … we thank you,” she said. “We love you. You make a difference. You might not get enough praise or enough pay or enough credit for what you have done. But you are making a difference every day in our lives.”
Teachers who have more challenges in the classroom, like helping kids learn to speak English, should be judged less harshly if test scores take time to catch up to their peers, she said.
“You are the unsung heroes of our society and community,” Mawi said, turning back toward the teachers. “We love you and thank you.”