A panel of present and former ESL students shared their stories on their assimilation to the United States during an event in November. (Submitted photo)

Present and former ESL students from Karen, Hispanic and Congolese backgrounds shared their stories of hardship, hope and resilience at the St. Rose of Lima parish center in November.

In his introduction, Fr. Rafael Rodriguez explained that when he became the pastor in 2016, he inherited many great programs and is happy to support them. Under his tenure, the program has moved from the basement at St. Michael into the parish center at St. Rose, where a curriculum library and extra rooms have been set up.

“(It is) a blessing to see our people (who) have adopted the United States as their new land, their new country,” Fr. Rodriguez said. “Becoming integrated into the American society, being responsible citizens, voting, worshiping and being people who also contribute to its growth.”

  • Kay Nay Ywa Paw was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and explained its difficulties. Living on a mountain, the children would have to go down the hill to get water, find wood for the cooking fire, etc. Refugees like Kay and her family were prohibited from leaving the camp and searching for jobs. Kay finally came to the U.S. in 2011 at the age of 14. She became a U.S. citizen in 2017 and bought a house three years ago, where she lives with her husband, her three children and her parents. Kay explained how her teacher in the literacy program helped her assimilate — not just with the language but also helping her find good schools for her children.
  • Soe Min moved to a refugee camp in Thailand when he was 15. He spent nine years in the camp, where he was able to learn braille. He came to the U.S. with his brother in 2008. “(In the) United States, we have a better life. Like we got enough food, we got good clothing, we got freedom.” A music lover, he played a song of praise to God at the end of the presentation.
  • Poe Ru tragically lost his arms and one eye when encountering a land mine. He explained, “After I lost my arm, and my eyes, I’m not happy. Yeah. And it’s very sad every day.” He shared how a priest was a source of comfort in this time. “You have to see me every day. You have to go to prayer or to church.” The first week, he prayed. In the second and third weeks, he cried. He spent 13 years in the refugee camp. He was finally able to come to the United States in 2010. He is now married with a 10-year-old daughter. He is a leader in the local Karen community and proudly votes in every election.

Student stories: Mexico

  • Daniel Sanchez explained what it was like to work with a limited knowledge of English when he moved to Texas as a young adult. Kind coworkers helped him learn some English. Twenty-two years ago, he moved to Milwaukee. “I’m going to do something for my family to better life. I like the life over here — the better opportunities for everything. I’m not complaining about my life in Mexico. It was beautiful. I have all my family over there from my father and mother, but I have my own family. I have to see the future of my family.” His family is indeed blessed. He and his wife have three girls and one boy. His oldest daughter attends Marquette University, and their second daughter has also been accepted to Marquette. They are immensely proud and thankful. Daniel is constantly giving back and is described as a leader at St. Rose of Lima Parish.
  • Sergio Herrera was born in Mexico, where he studied to be a lawyer. He came to Milwaukee in March 2021 and married the following July. He attends St. Rose with his wife and her family, where he serves as a reader for the Sunday Masses in Spanish. “I enjoy every moment I come to the same Michael and St. Rose literacy programs for English classes. Every Saturday morning, I improve my English skills in speaking, reading and listening. I worked on a taco truck for one year and now work at the Mexican consulate in Milwaukee. I am so happy because I help the people from my country.” He and his wife recently bought a house near Glendale. They are excited to start a family in the future.

Student Stories: Democratic Republic of the Congo 

  • Cyrille Monatshebe came to the U.S. in 2019 after winning the visa lottery. A cradle Catholic, he came to St. Rose for Mass. After meeting Fr. Rodriguez, he was set up with a St. Michael “family,” where they lived together and learned English. He completed an associate’s degree in auto mechanics from MATC. He and his wife are parents to a toddler.

After the presentation, current tutors were on hand to share their experiences with students. They expressed the benefits they have received from tutoring — they feel it is not only the students who have grown but them as well. They shared their pride in the strides their students have made. They were incredibly proud to share that several program graduates studied for and ultimately passed their citizenship tests.

The St. Michael and St. Rose Literacy program offers ELL lessons in many areas, including specific help with employment, intermediate ESL skills, citizenship and family literacy. The program would like to expand by adding more tutors to its ranks.

At the end of her story, Kay mentioned that she knows many people who would like to take advantage of the program, but the number of tutors limits how many students can participate.

The program coordinator, Deborah Lindberg, provides training and ongoing support for tutors. Tutors work with one student once per week. Members of other parishes and other faith traditions are welcome to tutor. If you are interested in supporting this ministry with either talent or treasure, email deborah.lindberg@att.net.