The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 7:16 pm

Burmese literacy work nets riches beyond money

Frank Gray

Kyaw Soe was a 27-year-old former Burmese literature student when he came to the United States in 1993, fleeing a military regime that had overthrown the elected government in Burma.

He had some experience teaching English. He had been trained by U.N. officials while in a refugee camp.

After 10 years in the United States, though, he realized something. Burmese refugees continued to pour into Fort Wayne, and most, including children, spoke no English. The Burmese spoke their language in their homes, and even the television shows they watched were in Burmese, retrieved off the Internet.

The result was that when young Burmese entered school, they spoke no English.

So in 2003, Soe, who was by then working as an interpreter for the Fort Wayne Community Schools, started his own literacy program for Burmese students, teaching them English.

It was a vital effort to Soe. Education was the key to his fellow Burmese finding success in their new home. There would come a day when there would be Burmese teachers and Burmese working as police and in other positions of responsibility, but it would only happen if young Burmese got off to a good start, learning English.

The program was small at first, just Soe and a handful of volunteers teaching children out of a room at Centlivre Village Apartments. Nobody got paid. It was just something that had to be done.

Over the years, the program has grown. It moved to IPFW, and Soe’s job began to change. As the sole person who had to run the program, it was Soe’s job to recruit students who could benefit from the program and find volunteers who would help with teaching.

In the last 11 years, Soe has recruited hundreds of volunteers who show up on Saturday mornings at IPFW and help teach English to the students he’s brought into the program.

In that time more than 1,000 students have gone through the program.

One thing hasn’t changed, though. Nobody gets paid.

"I put in my sweat and my time" running the program, Soe says. "I have a dream," a goal for the kids involved.

The other day, explained Soe, who works at North Side High School, he was walking down the hall and passed a guidance counselor’s office. On the wall he saw a list of student names.

The list was students who had qualified for dual credit, meaning they had taken special courses and done well enough that they earned both high school credit and credit at IPFW.

And on the list he noticed something that surprised him. Among the names on the list were 10 students, Burmese students, who had been through his literacy program years before.

Not every student who has been through the program has gone on to great things, and Soe acknowledges that there are many Burmese students who are not doing well. But there, on the wall, were 10 students qualifying for college credit for the work they were doing in high school.

No, Soe says, he’s never been paid a dime for the work he’s done the last 11 years running his literacy program.

But there were those names, and that makes it worth it, he says. That’s his payment, he said. And what a tremendous Christmas present.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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