changing others' lives changes ours too

Burmese Immersion Project                                by Becca Schultz                                           

 It was the summer of 2011 and I was struggling emotionally. I’d just moved to Milwaukee for a job and my family and friends had never felt further away. My boyfriend Shawn suggested that I try something new, something I’d always wanted to do but never was able to do, or never got around to doing. I told Shawn I wished I had volunteered more. Lots of my high school classmates had volunteered for requirements of some kind, but I never had any requirements and never found the time to volunteer.

 I found my way to and saw the posting title: Burmese Refugees Need American Friends. I contacted Bob Heffernan, and I met him and a young Burmese man named Aung Thu at a coffee shop. Bob told me the whole story: about Burma and the decades– long conflict there; about the ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, Karenni, and Chin- who had suffered at the hands of military splinter groups; how the civilians are arrested without due process. Most of these people flee to Thailand as refugees, and many have ended up here in Milwaukee. Bob rents apartments to quite a few refugee families, and he told me that he noticed a disturbing pattern: they didn’t leave their houses very much, they didn’t interact with Americans, they didn’t explore Milwaukee, and their English wasn’t improving after months and even years in the U.S. This problem was intriguing because it was both international and local in nature. The international human rights aspect and the local community building and support aspect are equally important, and they impact one another.

 Bob told me he knew of a family with teenagers that he thought I should meet. A few days later I found myself in the home of Ta Khu and Naw Raw, struggling to remember the names of their five children, ages 11 to 19. Little did I know that this Karen family, with the parents fussing around in the kitchen and the teens seated across from me in the living room, would become like a second family to me. Little did I know that Aung Thu, the young Burmese man, would come to call me “Mom.”

 My role as an “American friend” quickly developed into something more educational. While I tried to bring a classroom to my Karen family, it soon became apparent that they needed a classroom of their own. Bob noticed the same thing, and he found a space for us to meet twice a week for informal tutoring. It was at these sessions that I met other members of the refugee community. Karen, Karenni, and Malaysian children, teens and adults started arriving, needing help, bringing homework. They shared their stories, their worries, and their lives with me.

 It’s not just the refugee community that has enriched my life; it’s also the other volunteers who found their way to Bob’s project, just as I did. We all had our different reasons for why this type of volunteerism attracted us, but we all share the same passion and devotion to helping our students and each other. I can honestly say I have found true, life-long friends through this project.

 I started this journey hoping to help myself, to fill my own time, to make myself feel better. I feel like a completely different person now. I can’t imagine a life before meeting all these wonderful people. I also can’t think of any other time in my life where I felt God’s blessings and his work on Earth in such a real way. The students and the volunteers belong to a remarkable blend of religions, but like light shining through a multi-faceted prism, I see the light of God in our work and our people.