By the end of the summer, Mer, now 21, hopes to have completed the requirements to gain entry to the Health Science Institute at Penn Valley. Her plan is to become a licensed practical nurse and work at that level while continuing her studies to become a registered nurse. She wants to work in a hospital here, and dreams of returning to Myanmar or Thailand to make a small dent in the suffering she saw in the camps.
“It was easy to get sick but hard to find a place to take care of you,” she remembers.
Mer’s dreams of returning to Asia bring her family full circle: her father’s dream was to find a way to America.
“The promise of America is rarely for that first generation,” says Steve Weitkamp, director of refugee resettlement services at Jewish Vocational Services. “It’s for the younger people who go through the acculturation machinery that is the public schools.”
That has been true for Kpaw Klay and his family. With his daughter translating, he says he loves America because he can move about freely. But learning English has been a struggle for him. And a life of hard physical work has left him disabled and with a pacemaker. While his wife works as a housekeeper at a downtown hotel, Klay spends much of his time at home.
The father’s crowning achievement was getting his children to America. His daughter is carrying on from there.
‘The Kid Has Wind’
Souleymane Adam listens during a math class at community college.
A teacher at East High School made a point of getting to know Souleymane Adam even when he barely spoke a word of English. Patrick Brier teaches American government. He also coaches cross country.
Although Adam was too old to compete in high school sports, Brier invited him to practice with the team and run unofficially in meets. Adam finished first in every high school meet he entered. Following Brier’s instructions, he stepped off the course just before entering the chute at the finish line.
“The kid has just got wind. He does not get tired,” Brier says. It was his idea for Adam to try out for the team at Johnson County Community College.
The college, located in Overland Park, enrolls more than 18,000 students, many from the better-off suburban school districts in Johnson County. Adam ran two seasons of cross country and one season of track before the school, in a controversial move, canceled the programs.
By that time, though, Adam had little time for college sports. On a Saturday afternoon in November, sitting on the living room sofa that doubles as his bed in the three-bedroom house in northeast Kansas City that is home to his parents and 10 siblings, he described what at the time was a typical school day.
“Before, I couldn’t stay in school and I couldn’t work. Now I want to use every second of my life.”
“I wake up at 4 in the morning and I take a shower and pray and get ready to go,” he said. “So by 5 o’clock I’ll be driving on the highway, that way I don’t get stuck in traffic. I go to school for my first class, second class, third class. Sometimes I don’t eat breakfast because I get really busy with my unfinished assignments.”
His classes ended at 1 p.m., which gave him a small window of free time before his 3 p.m. shift at Prier Products in Grandview. A manufacturer of plumbing industry products, Prier collaborates with Jewish Vocational Services to employ refugees. Adam found out about the company when he accompanied a friend who wanted to apply for a job there.
“I enjoy working there because people are really nice and helpful to me,” he said. During breaks, coworkers helped him with school assignments.
He would leave work at 11 p.m. and drive home, where he would find most of his family sleeping. Adam would finish off the remains of the family dinner and continue with his homework.
Souleymane Adam and his younger brother Jasir Adam at their parent's northeast Kansas City home.
“Sometimes I don't sleep at all,” Adam said. “I'll be working until the next day and take a shower and continue the same routine.”
On weekends, he worked a second job as an aide to a Sudanese man who is blind and speaks no English.
He viewed his relentless schedule as making up for lost time.
“Before, in my old life, I couldn’t help that much,” Adam said. “I couldn’t stay in school and I couldn’t work. Now I want to use every second of my life.”
From Tanzania to Penn Valley
Asende Ebumbe in the home he shares with other family members in northeast Kansas City. Ebumbe was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but spent most of his life in refugee camps in Tanzania.
Asende Ebumbe is another young refugee student in a hurry. He is making his way through Penn Valley’s ESL curriculum while working a low-paying job to survive.
“Education is important in this life,” he says. “If you have education, everything’s going to be OK.”
Getting that education, though, is a struggle. During lunch one day, Ebumbe passed his hand across his forehead and asked for divine help.
“Oh God, bless me,” he said. “Bless me to learn English.”
Ebumbe sees proficiency in English as his ticket forward. For passing his classes at Penn Valley Community College. For navigating rituals like a trip to the motor vehicle office. Even for ordering a pizza and soft drink at an unfamiliar restaurant in Kansas City’s River Market.
Ebumbe, 25, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but spent most of his life in refugee camps in Tanzania. Unrelenting conflict in his homeland, which continues to this day, forced his parents to flee with their children in the 1990s.
Ebumbe was nearly 23 when he cleared the United Nations’ years-long resettlement process. Unlike many refugees, he came to America by himself. After brief stays in North Carolina and South Dakota, he moved to Kansas City on the advice of Congolese friends he had connected with on Facebook. One of those friends told him he could go to college here.
Refugees who arrive in the U.S. in their late teens and early 20s often find themselves in a bind. They are too old to attend high school, but without a diploma they can’t get into college. Lacking English skills and career training, most find themselves in low-paying factory or cleaning jobs.
“In a sense we have a whole half-generation condemned to indentured servitude,” says Weitkamp, at Jewish Vocational Services.
Fewer than a quarter of refugee children worldwide attend school beyond primary grades, according to the United Nations. But Ebumbe had persevered long enough to earn his high school diploma. That had helped him get to America. And now it would get him into college.
“In a sense we have a whole half-generation condemned to indentured servitude.”
A Congolese friend helped him enroll at Penn Valley. They were clueless about FAFSA applications, Pell Grants, scholarships and work study programs. Being new in town, Ebumbe lacked the residency documents the college required, so he signed up for the more expensive out-of-state rates.
Once the semester started, he tanked almost immediately. Classes were bewildering. The school kept sending him emails about late payments.
“The load, financially and academically, was overwhelming for him,” says Teresa Stewart, who volunteers her time to help African refugees enroll in college and vocational programs.
From his usual place in the front row, Asende Ebumbe practices his English language skills during an ESL class at Penn Valley Community College.
Things went better the next semester. Stewart helped Ebumbe with his federal financial aid application. He was able to secure enough money through a Pell Grant to pay the back money he owed the college and sign up for new classes.
But mediocre grades in those classes, combined with his disastrous first semester, caused Ebumbe to lose his Pell Grant for failure to show adequate academic progress. So he was back to paying out of pocket.
Stewart says she pleaded with Ebumbe to hold off on classes until he got his financial and residency difficulties straightened out and became more fluent in English. While the ESL classes he is taking cost the same as associate degree courses at Penn Valley, they do not result in college credits. So Ebumbe, who struggles to afford the basics, will have spent thousands of dollars before he ever earns a credit.
But Ebumbe is tenacious. “I came to America to go to college,” he says.
“He wanted to go to college more than he wanted to eat,” Stewart says. “He chose the expenses for college over things I would have thought were more practical.”
This spring semester, Ebumbe is enrolled in two classes: ESL composition and grammar. His grades from last semester were good enough to give him hope, and he’s also less alone. One of Ebumbe’s sisters made her way to the U.S. with her husband and two children. They live with Ebumbe in a small rental home in northeast Kansas City.
“He wanted to go to college more than he wanted to eat.”
Ebumbe works 40 hours a week for $12.20 an hour at an auto finishing company. He tries to send money regularly to his parents and five siblings still in Tanzania. He isn’t able to help as much as he would like.
“In America I have so much to pay,” he says, mentioning rent, insurance, utilities and his cell phone bill, along with his tuition.
A rail-thin young man, Ebumbe spent the coldest days of the recent winter scampering about campus in a thin hoodie before someone gave him a coat. His phone is frequently shut off for non-payment. Lacking a computer, he stays after classes or visits libraries to do his homework. The one thing he has going for him is a reliable car, which he purchased from a friend in South Dakota.
Daniel Fitzgerald, associate director of the English as a Second Language program at Penn Valley, has seen many immigrant students struggle inside and outside of the classroom.
“It’s hard to be in this city and harder still when you don’t speak the language,” he says.
Ebumbe’s fellow student Nimo Kariye works with him on a group exercise during an ESL class at Penn Valley Community College.
Fitzgerald has taught English as a second language for 20 years. His students, he says, are “very generous and very motivated.” Those who make it through the ESL program outperform other Penn Valley students in associate degree classes, he says.
But not all students succeed in ESL.
“Some students just hit a wall,” Fitzgerald says. “They get to a certain point and then they level off. As hard as they work, they don’t improve.”
Teachers worldwide cope with this frustration. They even have a name for it: language fossilization. Researchers aren’t sure why it happens to some students and not others; theories include childhood trauma, lack of connection to English speakers, even childhood dehydration.
“Some students just hit a wall. They get to a certain point and then they level off. As hard as they work, they don’t improve.”
After three years in the United States, Ebumbe is working hard on his English. He sought a job where he could work alongside native English speakers rather than immigrants. In class, he stations himself in the front row and is quick to raise his hand to ask a question or answer one posed by the instructor. During breaks, he engages other students in conversation. With birthplaces in Iraq, Mexico, China, Brazil, Jordan and other places, his classmates are all seeking fluency in a new language.
“They are the hardest-working people you will ever meet,” says instructor Ashley Lynd, who teaches both of Ebumbe’s courses this semester. “They face every obstacle under the sun, but they are more positive than most Americans, including myself.”
From Johnson County to Cloud County
The landscape around Concordia, Kansas, is flat and brown and uncluttered as winter transitions into spring. A traveler passing through might describe the tableau as empty, and that is exactly the way Souleymane Adam likes it.
Adam’s life today is much different from the grueling routine he described in Kansas City in November.
After completing 16 credit hours in his fall semester at Johnson County Community College, he signed up for two online classes in the accelerated winter term.
He quickly fell behind. In January, his grades confirmed the worst. He had failed one course and received a D in the second.
Adam stepped back and looked at his life — the long hours, the lack of sleep, all the time driving between home, school and work. As the oldest son in a large family, he was spending hours every week dealing with paperwork and problems.
“Education means more to me than anything,” Adam says. But he had too many obligations getting in the way.
“They are the hardest-working people you will ever meet. They face every obstacle under the sun, but they are more positive than most Americans.”
As a refugee, Adam had been frustrated by an absence of choices and the torpor of prolonged waiting. In America, he controls his destiny. He decided to make a change, and he acted swiftly.
Through online research, he discovered Cloud County Community College, a school with just more than 800 students in Concordia, about a three-hour drive from Kansas City. It welcomes first-generation students, Adam learned. He could live on campus. Adam drove to Concordia in a snowstorm and registered for the spring semester.
Now, for the first time in his life, he has his own space, a barrack-like room across the street from the long, squat building that houses the school’s classrooms and offices. He eats meals in the dining hall and works out in the gym. School work is manageable and he has time to read books beyond those required in classes.
Over the winter, Souleymane Adam transferred to Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas. It’s a much different atmosphere from Johnson County Community College.
While he used to spend almost two hours a day in his vehicle, Adam now walks everywhere. He gave his car to his 21-year-old brother, Kamal, a Penn Valley student, who agreed to take over errand and translating duties for the family in Adam’s absence. Adam carpools to and from Kansas City some weekends with a friend.
At Cloud County, he participates in a program that offers extensive academic, financial and life-skills counseling for first-generation college students. If he returns in the fall, as he plans, Adam will have the opportunity to visit four-year college campuses throughout Kansas and receive help with his applications. That help is crucial to his ambitions, which include attending a four-year college and law school after that.
Adam had searched for those kinds of supports at Johnson County but never found the right group or adviser to provide them. The school makes counselors available, but they are busy and sessions are short.
“Sometimes I would go to my counselor with all kinds of questions, but because of time, you cannot feel comfortable enough to ask all the questions that you have,” Adam says.
He always has questions. Adrian Douglas, president of Cloud County Community College, says she began hearing about Adam soon after he arrived. He attended a lecture series during Black History Month and peppered the speaker (Douglas’ husband) with questions.
Adam already has submitted a successful proposal to start a new club on campus. Almost 20 percent of the student body consists of international students, who enroll at Cloud County to compete in the school’s many sports programs. Adam proposed a group that would bring students from countries like Brazil, France, Nigeria and Sudan together to share their stories while practicing English.
“This young man is really getting around,” Douglas says. “I’m excited to see what he’s going to do.”
No Distractions Allowed
Paw ie Mer (left), her mother Marry Htoo (center) and her sister Paw Moo look through their collection of traditional Karen clothing as they prepare for a birthday party.
Through force of will, Adam found a way to separate himself from the distractions and pressures that derail the college dreams of many refugee students. And he identified the one prescription that students and educators say would help the most: more supportive services to help new Americans figure out the complex financial, academic and bureaucratic expectations of staying in school.
Paw ei Mer says she wishes Penn Valley had special counselors who understand the cultural and language barriers that trouble immigrant students. Many students she knows, Mer says, are too shy or fearful to ask enough questions.
“It’s doing your best and never letting anything distract you from what you want to achieve.”
Teresa Stewart, the volunteer who helps refugee students, has the same thought. The advisers she’s seen on campuses are kind and helpful, Stewart says, but “they talk quickly and in compound and complex sentences.” Students struggling with English, she says, “walk away with no comprehension of what just happened.”
Other measures would help, too. Daniel Fitzgerald, at Penn Valley, would like to see an easier path for ESL students into career track programs. He’s designing “bridge courses,” to help students master vocabulary they’ll need for certain academic career tracks, like medicine.
Fitzgerald also wishes ESL classes could be financed in some way other than Pell Grants.
“Financial aid puts a lot of pressure on students when so many other things get in the way,” he says. “We have students already in trouble with financial aid and they haven't even gotten to the first academic class yet.”
Despite the difficulties, though, the drive for education is strong.
Holly Milkowart, at Johnson County, says the English for Academic Purposes program has the highest retention level of any program on campus.
And refugee students who leave Penn Valley without finishing the ESL curriculum often return a year or so later, when their lives have quieted down a bit, Fitzgerald says.
“It’s doing your best and never letting anything distract you from what you want to achieve,” Adam says.
“Being a first generation college student is not easy but you have to focus on your goal. You don't want to be in the same situation as your parents, or your grandparents. You go up some hills and down some hills, but you keep moving.”
Spoken like a runner.
Now training for next year's track team at Cloud County Community College, Souleymane Adam runs on a treadmill as he chats with Kenyi Santino. Santino, also from South Sudan, was an Olympic athlete on the first South Sudan Olympic team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha. This story is a joint project of KCUR and the Education Writers Association.