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Lincoln's refugee students find language barriers when doing homework

Lincoln's refugee students find language barriers when doing homework

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Suu Bweh and five of her six children sat on the floor, gathered around a small, squat table in their living room. Khu Say, Bweh’s second-oldest, introduced himself. Then, 8-year-old Htee Eh Shee introduced himself.

Suu Bweh pointed to the other three children, turned to Htee Eh Shee and spoke in Karen: “They’re 6, 4 and 3,” he said in English, pointing at each.

Suu Bweh doesn’t speak much English. Though it’s not difficult for the oldest three boys to translate for their mother, at times it puts them in a tough spot.

Every week, Khu Say faces the same English homework assignment: He goes to the library, finds a short book or story, reads it over the weekend and fills out a worksheet summarizing what he has read -- the plot, climax, main characters, conflict and resolution.

And every week, he does it on his own.

Khu Say, a 14-year-old freshman at Lincoln High School, has been speaking English for three years, just as long as everyone else in his family. When he needs help with homework outside the classroom, he is on his own. His parents just aren’t any help.

Khu Say, like many refugee students, is more proficient at English than his parents, creating a troublesome spot when he needs help with his homework. Studies show that puts Khu Say and others like him are at a disadvantage.

One Vanderbilt University study, "Parental Involvement in Homework," directly linked parents’ involvement in homework to their children’s academic success, understanding of the material and better homework performance. Parental involvement has a “direct influence on school learning and achievement,” the authors wrote.

Suu Bweh, her husband, Gha Bweh, and their six children are a Karen family who came to the United States three years ago after spending nearly 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand. Three of the children are in school: Khu Say is a freshman, Htee Eh Shee is in second grade at Holmes Elementary, and Khu Htoo, 16, is a sophomore at Lincoln High.

Khu Say and Khu Htoo report no problems with history and science classes.

“English is my hardest class,” Khu Say said. “It’s harder to write than to talk.”

When Khu Say does have a question, he opens the dictionary. Khu Say, who plays soccer for Lincoln High, said he rarely struggles with entire sentences -- it’s the words that trip him up from time to time.

Khu Say’s older brother prefers to ask teachers for help.

“When I don’t understand something,” Khu Htoo said, “I will stay after class and ask the teacher.” If his question will take some time to answer, he said he sets up times with teachers before and after school to meet.

That's the best option for struggling refugee students, said Oscar Rios Pohirieth, Lincoln Public Schools’ cultural specialist for federal programs.

“We have no program in place right now to help these students, except for meeting with a teacher before or after school,” Pohirieth said. “Many of the cultural centers in town provide more specific support, especially when it comes to language.”

LPS has partnered with local community service agencies, such as the Lincoln YMCA and Family Service to create Community Learning Centers, which are before- and after-school programs at LPS schools where students play games and do other activities, depending on which organization oversees that site. Some of the sites have designated homework times, while some do not, said Mariella Resendiz Alvarado, who is the CLC site manager at Holmes Elementary. She said about 15 percent of the students at Holmes are English Language Learners, while fewer than 10 percent of the children are refugees.

Unlike his high school-aged brothers, Htee Eh Shee rarely has much homework, except math, which he said he brings home every day and does alone. Htee Eh Shee doesn’t struggle with English, which he has been speaking since he was 3. Unlike many second-graders, Htee Eh Shee is bilingual, speaking both Karen and English, but because he never learned Karen formally, he doesn’t know how to write it.

The CLCs, which, according to Pohirieth, many students -- both refugee and others -- utilize, don't focus on homework. Instead, the programs act more like a babysitter until parents can pick up children after school. Some of the after-school programs have what they call "power hour," which "is about an hour for kids to sit down and do homework and get some help if needed," Pohirieth said. "But not all schools do the power hour."

 Without a program in place, many refugee children are on their own for homework. That’s not how Suu Bweh, who usually uses one of her sons as a translator, wants it to be for her sons, but it’s how it is.

Without using one of her sons as a translator, Suu Bweh offered a parent’s desire: “I wish I could help them.”

Ryne Stefankiewicz is a senior in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He wrote this story for a college project called Nebraska Mosaic, which covers Lincoln's growing refugee communities and publishes articles, photographs and videos at


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