A local writing partnership has Siena students teaching creative writing to refugees as a tool to help them improve their reading and writing skills.
The Community Engaged Writing Partnership, now in its fourth year, was started by Albany native and Siena professor John Harden to help adults on the south end of Albany improve their reading and writing skills.
“We were looking at the needs of people attempting to get their GEDs,” said Harden. “The main skill that was needed most was writing skills. Now, I teach first-year students at Siena, and as soon as I heard that people weren’t crazy to show their writing, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what do my Siena students need help with the most?’ That’s improvement with their writing skills.”
Harden said, because of that, it seemed a natural fit to pair Siena students with the community members as a way to help both groups. The writing partnership meets once a week.
About a year and a half into the program, a leader from the Karen community approached Harden and asked if the class could help the refugees that had settled in the Albany area.
A longtime civil war in Burma between the Burmese Army and more than 100 diverse ethnic groups has prompted many refugees to cross the border into Thailand. From there, some made their way to Albany, which now has a community of roughly 450 refugees made up of the Karen and Karreni ethnic groups.
The writing class then moved to the library on Delaware Avenue because it is closer to where most of the refugees live and it’s easily accessible.
“What we do here, is we work together in a partnership (with) both Siena students and the refugees writing personal stories and working to improve every part of their English,” said junior Adderlin Tevaras, the lead student coordinator.
There are 25 volunteers from Siena and eight coordinators. Volunteers become coordinators after being in the program for a year and have different roles to make sure the program runs efficiently.
Harden said every meeting starts with food because food creates conversation, and conversation leads to forming relationships. The idea is to create lasting friendships and help create an inclusive community. Many of the refugees were not exposed to leadership roles. The partnership helps them develop skills so that they can help others in their community.
One project that the group created was a video about the experience of going to the doctor for the first time. Many of the refugees have never been to a doctor, so in order to make them more comfortable with the process, the partnership made a movie. Everyone wrote an essay on his or her first trip to the doctor, and then they created a script, with the final movie taking three months to create.
Arkea, a participant in the writing project, was born in a refugee camp in Bangkok. He said he eventually wants to go to school to be a pharmacist’s assistant because he figures it would be a good way to give back to his community.
“Most refugees, if they need doctors, when the doctors prescribe them medicine they don’t know what they were prescribed and I could help them,” said Arkea.
The refugees aren’t the only ones that gain from the program. Harden said that 86 percent of the students last year said that participating made them better writers and that they could see how they were helping other people, which was one of the most gratifying parts of the experience. Harden also said he hopes to expand the class to other parts of the community.
More information about the program can be found at writingpartnership.org.