BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. – Sarah G. Swen walks to the courtesy telephone mounted on the wall in the hallway outside her classroom and pulls a small phonebook from her purse. The number she is looking for is scribbled in large print covering most of the 3-inch by 5-inch page.
“Seven-six-three,five-three-seven …” Swen begins to call out every digit she is dialing loud enough to be heard from 20 feet away.
The call doesn’t go through. She hangs up and tries again, and again. Swen’s repeated calling of the same phone number alerts Betty Toe, a schoolmate from a more advanced class, that the junior needs help.
“You have to dial one before seven-six-three. But because this phone is the same area code as the number you’re calling you only need to dial the last seven,” Toe explains before helping Swen make the call.
Swen is no little girl calling home to be picked up after her day in school, but she is a schoolgirl. She is one of more than a dozen Liberian immigrant women aged between 60 and 75, who come to Brookdale Covenant Church in Brooklyn Center every Saturday to be taught skills that most people in the United States do not have to go to a classroom for.Mastering basic skills like knowing how to write their own names and addresses,or how to make a phone call can bring tremendous freedom to these women.
Many of them can now leave their homes knowing that if they got lost they can make a phone call and give directions to where they are. Knowing English also allows them to bypass interpreters in private matters like visits to the hospital.
“I’m so happy that when I go to the doctor, I speak for myself,” says Toe, can now read English on her own.
Other elderly African men and women who have immigrated to the United States haven’t been as lucky because there are not many programs similar to the one Toe and her classmates attend. Many elders who were very active back in Africa before they were forced to flee war find themselves secluded at home, unhappy, depressed and depending heavily on their younger relatives.
Dr. Melvin Coleman, a psychological counselor at Minneapolis-based Crown Medical Center whose patients are primarily new African immigrants, says that depression stemming from elders feeling worthless to society makes it difficult for them to recover from the post-traumatic stress they already suffer from.
“Recovery from the initial trauma is relative to the individual’s ability to participate in the community,” Dr. Coleman says. “These are people to whom literacy wasn’t such a factor where they come from, but they were seen as intelligent, were proud and had roles. Lack of a support network within which they function with roles for them as wise persons is the thing that causes depression.”
Joseph L.Mbele, a Tanzanian-born associate professor of English and Folklore at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., attributes the abandonment of elderly African immigrants to their younger relatives’ exposure to a foreign culture that treats its elders differently.
“The elders do not feel like they get the same reverence and respect they would in Africa because their children and grandchildren are really growing up like Americans,” Mbele says.
Growing up like Americans also means that many younger Africans and their children prefer English to African languages. This leaves the elderly isolated, even when other family members are present. That plight of the elderly is what prompted Doris Parker, the executive director of the Liberian Women’s Initiative of Minnesota and other women from the nonprofit organization to start a literacy program for elderly women.
“A lot of time I’m asked, ‘Why another literacy programs?’” says Parker. “I tell them the goal of this is not just teaching people. The primary focus really is to facilitate social interaction and to create a place for these women to come and share with one another and to see people from the same cultural background they can relate to.”
Initially,the program began as a concern for the safety of one of LWIM’s member’s children, who were being left in the hands of their 80-year-old grandmother when parents were at work.
“She was watching little kids but she didn’t know how to use the phone and we wondered how she would call 911 if a child was choking,” Parker recalls.
They decided to bring her and another elderly woman to their office in Brooklyn Park and teach them how to use the phone and how to spell and write their names and addresses. Parker remembers that day, Aug. 21, 2004, as vividly as one would remember a wedding day.
“We didn’t know what we were doing. We are not professional teachers. We had no curriculum. We just went by how we had learned (as children),” says Parker, who is a registered nurse.
When teaching the two elderly women became successful, Parker and her colleagues decided to bring in more students. But because of limited funds, they have had to limit the number of students to just over a dozen. Parker adds that despite repeated appeals to younger members of the African community, few have shown any interest to fund the extension of the program or to volunteer for tasks like translation and driving the women to and from school.
“We don’t even know the families of most of these women,” Parker says. “Very few are involved. I don’t even know if they know what we do here.”
Despite the absence of support from the African community, the program has continued,thanks to a modest grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation. The church has also been very helpful by donating space, two teachers and a fueled van for transportation.
In order to start the two-hour classes at 11 a.m every Saturday, Momolu Kpakelipaye, the driver, starts going door to door at 8 a.m to pick the schoolgirls up. He gets paid a tiny stipend, but it’s his passengers’ excitement and eagerness to learn that get him out of bed.
“If I’m even a minute late, they get on the phone and call me. ‘Where are you? Did you forget me?” Kpakelipaye says imitating their voices.
At around10:30 a.m, Kpakelipaye pulls up behind the church in a dark-green 15-passenger van. Like a limousine chauffeur, he steps out of the vehicle and hurries around to open the door. He quickly pulls out a two-step portable wooden staircase and one by one the ladies step down to the asphalt. They are dressed in flamboyant,colorful African regalia with marching headdress, looking more like dignitaries going to an African royal wedding than students going to class.
Like any good students, they are here before their teacher, which allows them time to engage in small talk and trade the latest food and merchandise they have received from Liberia.Today’s hottest commodity is pipe fish, a specially dried and coiled fish that could easily be mistaken for a burned donut.
Shortly after 11 a.m, Lynnette Murray-Gibson, one of the teachers and chair of LWIM’s board of directors, walks into the intermediate class.
“Goodmorning, teacher,” they answer in harmony before rushing to take their seats.
Murray-Gibson begins to take roll even though there are only six students in the class.Kpannah Joseph, Fatu Kandakai, Hawa Lafaley, Kou Feahn, Gorlon Monleh, Sarah Swen; they all answer, “Present, teacher.”
Murray-Gibson writes 12 words in three columns on the white dry-erase board. “Loved, gave,begotten, God, believes, perish, only, everlasting, son, life, world, should.”
On the top left corner of the board she writes “bible” to hint them at the origin of the words. She randomly points at each word and asks her students to spell and pronounce them. They get most of them right but some like “everlasting” and“begotten” are a bit challenging. After repeating the exercise for about a dozen times, Murray-Gibson erases the words and writes the bible verse, John3:16, in the correct order. She asks her students to read the sentence out loud.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” the students say in unison.
“You ladies learn fast,” Parker, who is sitting in the back of the room, says with the tone of voice a mother would use when commending a five-year-old.
“We arebook people,” Joseph says with a grin and a shrug on her shoulders as her classmates burst into laughter.