Myanmar Learning Center-Milwaukee
“Refugees are birds inside a cage that get fed on a regular basis but are not able to fly. When the owner comes and opens the cage and lets them go, chances are that most of the birds cannot fly anymore because they did not have the opportunity to learn or practice how to fly for a very long time now. Many do not even know what it means to fly.” A Karen refugee, Mae La Camp, 02/09/2005
This metaphor of birds in a cage vividly describes the situation of Myanmar refugees both in the refugee camps and in the USA. According to the metaphor, birds are naturally born to be free and so are the refugees. Freedom is a natural right for all creatures. Refugees are human beings who were naturally born free, and yet their God-given freedom was stolen away by physical restrictions and a variety of unfreedoms. Various types of unfreedoms leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The major sources of unfreedoms are poverty as well as tyranny, lack of economic and employment opportunities, systematic social deprivation and political repression.  Therefore, the cage represents those restrictions, limitations and unfreedoms. The true freedom means not only the absence of those unfreedoms, but also expansion of freedoms that are associated with basic capacities, such as being literate and numerate (education), and having access to professional and career development programs which will help them prepare to “fly”, or to enjoy life and live fully as human beings. The metaphor also says, “Chances are that most of the birds cannot fly anymore because they did not have the opportunity to learn or practice how to fly for a very long time now”. This third point is associated with capacity building, educational trainings and professional development that would help expand social and economic opportunities of Myanmar refugees. Without the opportunities to learn and practice how to fly or opportunities to develop required capacities to live and survive in the US, they will fall back into the cage of poverty and dependency on the state social welfare system which eventually lead them to become like birds in a cage again, not being able to realize the full meaning of freedom and enjoy life fully as human beings.
Our Goals and Objectives:
The goal and objective of Myanmar Learning Center-Milwaukee is to provide those opportunities for Myanmar refugees to learn and practice how to fly, that is, to offer trainings that are associated with capacity building, educational and professional development in order to improve their chances for educational and employment opportunities not only to live and survive but also to succeed in the United States.
In order to accomplish our goals and objectives, we believe that Myanmar refugee communities and local communities should have direct decision making power over the policies, constitution and management of our learning center. We also believe that Myanmar Learning Center will bring students, families, communities, schools and universities together, and build a strong network between them through volunteer and learning opportunities. Therefore, the goal of the learning center is to establish a network between Myanmar refugee communities and local communities as well as local social, religious and educational institutions.
Short Ramp for the High Way: A Metaphor for Transitional Education
Transitional education for Burmese refugee students is more or less like driving onto a high-speed high way, where the students learn driving for the first time only when they are on the ramp. Majority of refugee students were just mere beginners. They have to learn driving on the ramp, and then drive on the high way, not being able to catch up with the flow and speed of high-way traffic. Some students did not make it to the high way; they would either drop out or leave without a diploma. Some did make it to the high way, but they were often pushed out or penalized for violent driving behaviors. Some stumbled along and picked up the speed slowly. Some successfully exited the high way but they were often stuck at the red traffic lights of entrance exam for college education. Only a very few have so far made it to college successfully in Milwaukee, because the ramp for transitional formal education is too short and the standard traffic speed of the high way is too high to catch up for the majority of Burmese students who have never gone to school in Burma or in refugee camps. Schools in refugee camps were not able to prepare their students adequately in order to help them get a smooth transitional education in the US, nor were the schools in the US prepared overnight to take and teach such a huge population of Burmese refugee students due to cultural and language barriers. While regular students in the US normally take 12 years to finish their high school, Burmese refugee students have only about 3-4 years left to study in high school because they are not allowed to study at high school when they reach 21. Refugees who arrive very young are more fortunate because they have more time for transitional education. For students older than 16, the ramp is too short. Especially those who have never gone to school in Burma would normally leave high school with a literacy and numeracy level of 4th or 5th graders or sometimes even less. Transitional education for refugee students should become a topic of serious discussions among education policy makers.
Myanmar Learning Center was founded based on the experience and vision of Burmese teachers who are working with Burmese refugee students in public schools, in order to provide additional community-based educational support network for Myanmar refugee students so that they may have a smooth transitional education and make successful career pathways to college and universities. Our contribution may be very limited, but at least it provides a network of resource and support for high-risk refugee students in the community.
Our Past, Present and Future:
Myanmar Learning Center started from a very humble beginning, from Lao Family Center, Milwaukee. First public meeting for the formation of Myanmar Learning Center took place on July 14, 2012, at Lao Family Center. Representatives from refugee communities and local churches attended the meeting. The people at the meeting decided to test run a pilot program in August. Individuals and churches, from both local communities and refugee communities, contributed financially as well as physically (cleaning up) at its beginning.
We incorporated Myanmar Learning Center as a nonprofit organization, bought a one-year liability insurance and kicked off with a one-month Summer pilot program in August 2012, at Lao Family Center. We offered an Adult ESL class, a Writing class for High School students, a Reading class for Middle School students, and a Guitar beginner class for teenagers. 45 students enrolled, and 36 students successfully completed the program.
Second public meeting took place on August 25, 2012, to evaluate our pilot program. The Board of Directors was also elected for a one-year term. We agreed to continue Myanmar Learning Center for one more year. So far, we have successfully offered homework help, Math and English tutoring program for GED, middle and high school students on Saturdays. We have also offered Adult ESL programs based on families and neighborhoods, especially for women with children and men with 3rd shift jobs. We have currently 6-10 volunteer tutors for our Saturday tutoring program and Adult literacy program.
We moved our location from Lao Family Center to Milwaukee Christian Center urgently in November 2012, due to heating problems as well as for safety reasons. We rented a space at Milwaukee Christian Center from November 2012 until May 2013. We have moved to Jackson Park Lutheran Church on W Oklahoma Ave from May 25, 2013. We are grateful to Jackson Park for their support and partnership to help us fulfill our mission and vision for Myanmar refugees in Milwaukee.
Myanmar Learning Center’s programs are run purely based on volunteers. Individuals, local churches and refugee communities have supported financially and materially towards its rent and activity expenses. There is no fees for our students.
Written By Oliver Byar Bowh Si
Coyright@ 2013 Myanmar Learning Center
Milwaukee, WI, USA
Al Fuertes, “Birds Inside a Cage: Metaphor for Karen Refugees”, Social Alternatives, Vol.29, No.1, 2010.
Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.xii-xiii, pp.3-4.