Serving in the Spirit of St. Francis
“I feel I’m touching people at the margins. That’s what Francis did.”
This is how Sister Rose Ann Reichlin describes her ministry of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to immigrants. From California, to Florida, to Peru and New York, she has been teaching ESL for many years.
Now in Buffalo, N.Y., she continues teaching ESL through the Buffalo School Adult Education Department. In 2012 she had 17 students in her class of Bhutanese, Burmese and Somalian adults. “It has been a particular challenge with most of the individuals being non-readers in their first language.”
Sister Rose Ann explains that these people have escaped from their countries and lived in border countries before coming to the United States. Some wait in camps in Thailand with tents as their home until a country will accept them. Some wait for years. They have escaped terrible conditions of war, violence, abuse, discrimination and living in constant fear. “It’s very rewarding to know that I’m helping when I see them arrive for class happy every day,” she says. “They bond together and their English is improving.”
Recognizing that education is the only way out of poor economic situations, Sister Rose Ann is inspired by her students’ desire to improve their lives. “They want to work. They want jobs and want their children to get jobs. They are not looking for a handout,” she says. Often, immigrants and refugees get the jobs that no one wants, she explains. Some have temporary jobs such as dishwashers and work through the night. Others are very industrious and even start small businesses. They may work in laundromats, nail salons or sell food and clothing in markets.
Sister Rose Ann tells of refugees who have left Myanmar (Burma) because of its military run government and daily violence. Here, people mainly work as farmers. They have no education at all and are unable to read or write. “Because they have no education in their own language, it is very challenging to teach them English,” she explains. It is also difficult for them to adapt to city life after only knowing the country life of a farmer.
Ten years ago, Sin Lin Tha, an educator in Burma decided to flee his country. It was his goal to reach Thailand and work to have his wife and two-year old son join him with the hopes of eventually coming to the U.S.
With the patience of Job, he waited 10 years before his wife and son were able to join him in Thailand. His son and wife looked forward to this long awaited reunion. They were travelling in a van with 20 other people. During the evening, as they approached the border, they could see the soldiers. The van driver made the decision to “gun it” to cross the border. The mother held her son tightly as the bullets flew. One went right through her hand that held her son close and killed the boy instantly. In order to continue the journey, she had to leave her son at the side of the road and go on. Her sorrow was unbearable. No other person in the van was killed.
For two more years, the couple lived in a tent within the confines of a camp. Eventually, they had another son and a daughter who was born with a cleft palate. Despite their tragedy, they finally made it to the U.S. where they met Sister Rose Ann. Although they still have their struggles, Sin Lin Tha is employed full-time and is able to support his family.
Sister Rose Ann says the plight of Sin Lin Tha and his family, is just one example of the many families who struggle as they leave their homelands seeking a better life. “The plight of their pain makes me want to do what I can. It has moved me as a Franciscan to work with the minority,” she says. “In appreciation for what I’ve been given, I want to give back.”