LOGANSPORT — In an upstairs study room at the Logansport library, a 26-year-old man from Burma and a retired social worker from just north of Walton go over spelling mistakes the man made in his last English homework assignment.
The man, Eh Say, is gradually piecing together a new life in the United States after escaping political unrest in his home country and spending about a decade in a refugee camp.
In halting English, Eh Say says he’s happy to be in the United States, living in Logansport with extended family, working second shift processing pork at Tyson Fresh Meats in Logansport and attending a small church of Christians who share his ethnic heritage. It’s a far different life from the one he left in southeast Asia.
Eh Say spent his early childhood with other Karen — an ethnic group making up about 7 percent of Burma’s population — in a farming village on a forested mountain in Burma. He wrote about his childhood for one of his recent homework assignments, in which he described how soldiers in the ruling military government ransacked his and neighbors’ homes and burned the village.
Amid fighting between rebelling Karen soldiers and the governing army, Eh Say and others in the village escaped to a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand in the mid-1990s. CIA World Factbook estimates indicate more than 450,000 Burmese nationals, mostly Karen, were still displaced as of last year.
Eh Say attended a school in the camp, achieving what he guessed to be the equivalent of 10 years’ Burmese education. However, he and other refugees were not free to leave the camp and could not gain employment.
Eh Say immigrated to the United States in 2007 and moved to live with his uncle’s family in Logansport a year later. He began trying to learn spoken English and enrolled in classes in English as a second language at Landmark Adult Learning Center, which has since closed. He had already learned to read some English.
Five years after moving to the United States, Eh Say was granted U.S. citizenship in a ceremony May 18. He says the United States is “better than Burma.”
“Burma is a beautiful country,” he said, “but the government is ...”
and he paused, searching for the right word in his still limited spoken vocabulary.
“Very oppressive,” supplied his English tutor, Barb Reed.
“Like that,” he assented.
Reed is now coaching Eh Say in written and spoken English as a new member of Literacy Volunteers of Cass County. Her goal is to help him earn his General Education Development certificate this fall. Eh Say says he wants to earn his GED in order to attend college and get a better job.
He and Reed began meeting twice a week in late June. Reed, formerly a social worker in the Logansport schools and a tutor through local civic organizations, assigns Eh Say to write one essay before each tutoring session on a topic she gives him. He’s also required to read from two or three newspapers each day and is given a list of spelling words to practice for each session’s spelling test.
Eh Say estimates he spends about an hour every day on homework for the tutoring sessions.
“If he could not do it, I wouldn’t push him so hard,” said Reed. “But he can do it.”
Reed gave Eh Say three GED pre-tests, taken from a two-inch-thick GED handbook published by McGraw-Hill, to assess his existing English language abilities and determined he struggled with verb agreement, sentence structure and some spelling.
But for speaking a native language that doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet, Reed is impressed by how far Eh Say has come in five years.
“He’s got the smarts,” she said. “We’ve just got to get them out.”
• Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org.