International Learning Center connects diverse Milwaukee refugees

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(Photos by Jen Janviere)

Pang Vang had never held a pencil before she came to the United States. The Laos refugee, 50, was relocated here in 1991 after spending about five years in a refugee camp in Thailand. There, Vang said, she and her eight children and husband stayed in a hot, cramped living space that was surrounded by a fence. They had to cook outside, and anyone who tried to leave the camp would be thrown in jail.

Now, Vang and her family live on the South Side of Milwaukee. In 2005, Vang enrolled at the International Learning Center (ILC), 639 N. 25th St., to improve her English. But without a high school diploma, she is struggling to find a job. She lost her former job when the company she worked for was sold.

ILC, a program of the Neighborhood House of Milwaukee, offers math, English and citizenship classes, as well as computer and life skills. It is the largest center in Milwaukee that works with refugees and the only one to educate adults. In 2011, it served more than 700 people.

“There’s such an eagerness to learn and a hunger for education,” said Sally Kuzma, English as a Second Language instructor and outreach coordinator at ILC. “About 80 percent of the students have never been to school before.”

ILC started in Milwaukee churches in 1981 as a one-on-one tutoring program. Now, it operates out of Central United Methodist Church with three paid teachers from Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) and volunteers.

ILC offers morning and evening classes and has an on-site preschool available. The morning classes are the most popular, according to Anna Bierer, program manager.

“There’s a lot of collaboration and good interaction [between classmates],” Kuzma said.

Kuzma teaches level-one basic literacy, which covers basic reading, writing and life skills. Her classroom is filled with conversation flash cards, pocket-sized notebooks and photos of her students on the walls, with autobiographies hand-written by the students.

Somalia, Burma and Thailand are among the countries that are represented at ILC. But within each of these countries are dozens of ethnicities that contribute to the center’s vast diversity.

“There are communities within the communities here,” Bierer said.

ILC used to be named the Indochinese Learning Center. But since Bierer started in 2005, the demographics have shifted from 75 percent Hmong to 40 percent Burmese. And in 2003, large numbers of Africans started coming to the center.

According to Bierer, there were about 800 refugees in Milwaukee in 2011, 200 more than the previous year. Bierer said they are sent by refugee resettlement programs and positively affect their communities. For example, Wausau is the ginseng capital of the world because of the number of Hmong residents there, she said.

In the fall, ILC started a film series to educate community members about refugees, immigration and the cultures of the students it serves.  It will be continuing in March with a documentary based on a young Hmong woman from Milwaukee who returns to Laos. In April, ILC plans to show a film about Burma, to offer insight about the changing political situation, Kuzma said.

“We consider [film showings] an open house,” Kuzma said. “We welcome people from all over and always have ethnic food to share.”

According to Bierer, there are many success stories within the program. Pang Vang, who started as a student at ILC, now volunteers at the center.

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