Celebrating Steamboat's diversity

A West African man sat toward the front of the class, slowly growing more and more embarrassed. His teacher, Anne Lushine, had asked him a simple question, "Do you like the snow?"

No one in the room could think of the French word for snow and it was an English word he had yet to learn.

Silence hung in the room until both sides finally gave up.

"Usually we have a French speaker in the room," Lushine said. "But not tonight."

The rest of the students at Thursday night's beginning level English as a Second Language class were Spanish speakers. They were welcoming to the African man, patting him on the back and smiling even though they could not speak to one another.

They understood the isolation behind the language barrier. They were beginners in this country, brought here by politics or economics, and learning to fit in.

Lushine held up flashcards.

"Where do you live?"

"What do you do in your free time?"

"When is your birthday?"

The students searched for the answers within the English words they had learned.

It is a long journey from their seats in the beginner ESL class to the laughter next door in the intermediate ESL class, taught by Tiffany Gebhardt.

Alex Min sat at the end of the table smiling broadly. He was making jokes in English about the food he planned to make for Tuesday night's International Evening. Everyone was laughing.

Min has been coming to ESL classes at Colorado Mountain College for two years. He struggles to understand English speakers who talk too fast. Otherwise, he is fluent.

Min is from Burma, now called Myanmar by the new military government.

He was a business owner in Rangoon, the capital city of his home country, but anyone who follows international politics knows that life for the Burmese people is a terrifying one under the new government.

"There was an election, and the military government lost, but they did not transfer power. There was an uprising for peace and freedom," he said. In Burma, dissent is suppressed and people are jailed for expressing their opinions.

"The educated people left Burma," Min said. "And the American government and the European Union banned business with our country. Foreign companies left, and business is down."

Min was struggling to feed his family when everything changed for him. In 2000, he won the green card lottery and came to the United States.

At first, life in America was difficult for Min. He arrived in California in September 2001, just before the terrorist attacks on the United States. The job Min thought he had waiting for him disappeared.

"American business was down. I didn't get the job. For half a year, I did not have a job," Min said. He found a job as a sushi chef at City Market in Steamboat over the phone. In 2002, he moved to Steamboat and plans to stay.

He lives here with his wife and two sons. His 13-year-old attends Steamboat Springs Middle School and his 8-year-old goes to Soda Creek Elementary.

"They speak English now," Min said. "They forgot their Burmese language."

Min is one of an increasing number of students from all over the world making a new life in Steamboat and attending the ESL classes at CMC.

When ESL director Jennifer le Roux took over the program in 1999, there were seven students. This semester, there are 70.

They divide the class between beginning, intermediate and advanced English speakers. They teach students from West Africa, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Ecuador, Nepal, Turkey and Brazil.

"Our goal is to help our students be a meaningful part of this community," le Roux said. "But we can only help them four hours a week. The rest is up to them."

On Tuesday, the French Club and the National Honors Society of Steamboat Springs High School want to introduce the community to their international members. This is the second year for the International Evening. Last year, it focused solely on the West African community.

"Last year, many connections were made," co-organizer Matthew Barmann said. "Jobs were lined up, friendships were formed and the money that we raised was given to the West African households."

This year, the event hosts decided to celebrate the diversity of Steamboat by including people from all cultures who live here.

"For me, I need to be fed in all sorts of ways," Barmann said. "Diversity makes this community a more desirable place to live."

On Tuesday, there will be speakers from the ESL class, food from all over the world and entertainment by belly dancers and the African dance troupe.

"It won't be as formal as last year," Barmann said. "We want it to be more like a bazaar with people walking in and out of different parts of the world."


-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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