July 8, 2013

Computer Literacy Skills Open Opportunities for Refugees

Refugees: Paw and Shannon Linehan
"Paw" with Benson Area Refugee Task Force's AmeriCorps person, Shannon Linehan. Paw is receiving her computer for finishing the computer course offered by the task force. Photo: Nancy Meyer

For “Paw,” a refugee from Burma now resettled in Omaha, Neb., learning to “log on” has opened many opportunities, including home ownership.

She is a recent graduate of a computer literacy course offered by the Benson Area Refugee Task Force, a coalition of organizations and individuals who collaborate to give extra support to the nearly 500 refugees who are resettled to Omaha each year.  The task force works closely with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, a Church World Service resettlement affiliate. 

With funding from UMCOR Refugee Ministries, the task force hired a part-time AmeriCorps worker, Shannon Linehan, to design and establish the 11-week, twice-weekly computer classes and to assist the task force with its existing citizenship and English language classes and other outreach activities.

The computer classes meet at two locations: Benson Presbyterian Church, where Linehan teaches, and the International Center for the Heartland, where Thomas Bowman, an AmeriCorps worker with Lutheran Family Services, teaches.  Thanks to a generous donation of 30 computers by Bellevue University to Lutheran Family Services, every student who meets certain benchmarks is being given a computer.

Paw exemplifies the value of the training, Linehan said.  She was born in Burma, but spent more than 20 years in Thailand in a refugee camp before coming to the United States.   She and her husband have three children under age 4, and work in a meat packing plant.  After several years in an apartment, they have saved enough money to make a down payment on a house.

“Paw was eager to learn how to use the computer and internet so that she could research housing in Omaha,” Linehan said.  “She also emailed her daughter’s summer school teacher before classes started to ask if her daughter needed to bring anything with her.  Paw often emails me with questions about the internet or just life in America.

“She also watches TV shows on her computer through legal sites, such as Hulu, and turns the subtitles on so that she can practice her English,” she said.  “If she does not know a word in the show, she pauses the program and uses the internet to look it up. “

Linehan added, “Paw was one of my first students, and up to 19 of her friends have come to my class after she told them it was worthwhile.”

Since it formed in January 2011, the Benson Area Refugee Task Force has cosponsored two refugee families and provided “value added” to many more through its quarterly Clothing Closet, an emergency fund, and a wide range of classes, including English, parenting for expectant mothers, safety, budgeting, housekeeping, pest control, citizenship exam preparation, and the computer literacy course.

Refugees: Anglican Church members and Burmese family
Members of Christ Our Life Anglican Church with the refugee family from Burma they mentored in collaboration with the Benson Area Refugee Taskforce and Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska: Saw Bah Bo Klo(dad) Moo Eh Paw(mom), Kmoo Paw, Thay Lah Paw, Moo Kpaw Thay, Moo Kpaw Wah, and Moo Glay Paw. Photo: courtesy Benson Area Refugee Task Force

Nancy Meyer, a member of Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church, and the Rev. Kurt Stecker, Associate Pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church (currently on medical leave), are co-chairs of the Benson Area Refugee Task Force, whose membership also includes their two congregations and Mt. Calvary, Bethany and Immanuel Lutheran; Glad Tidings Gospel Tabernacle; Family Room; Benson Baptist; Benson Presbyterian; Relevant Community Church; Evangelical Bible, and Christ Our Life Anglican.

Organizational members include Heartland Family Services, the Benson Neighborhood Association, Creighton University and the Southern Sudan Community Association.   The task force also includes several individual members – for example, five pastors and an ESL teacher.

“When we get involved with refugees and they with us,” Meyer commented, “we make lasting friendships across cultures.  We become more tolerant of others who are different in religion, or the way they raise their family, or the way they live.  And for the refugees to be accepted by Americans is huge.

“I have become very close to a particular refugee, La Day, a Karen ethnic refugee from Burma, who has overcome great hardship,” Meyer said.  “She lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming here in 2010.  She left behind adult children and grandchildren in the camp.   Soon after she arrived in Omaha, she was walking one of her sons to elementary school when she fell on the ice and broke both shoulders.  Two weeks later, her husband died of a stroke, leaving her to raise two sons alone and find work.  Yet she always has a smile on her face and tells me her faith and reading the Bible get her through.” 

In September, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska will give the Benson Area Refugee Task Force its “Faith in Action” award.  

“Benson Area Refugee Task Force provides invaluable support to our refugee community and to Lutheran Family Services,” said Lacey Studnicka, that agency’s Development Officer for Community Services.  “They are an amazing community partner and we are so grateful for the work they do to help create a welcome space for refugees in Omaha.”