The chalkboard reads, Hi, my name is Liz Allen. What's your name?
Although the students sitting in front of Allen range in age from 22 to 70, only a few are able to read it.
Allen is a teacher with Literacy Volunteers-Mohawk/Hudson, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides free individualized instruction to English-speaking adults seeking help with basic reading and writing skills (from non-readers up to sixth-grade level) or to speakers of other languages with conversational English. Trained volunteers provide two hours of instruction, once or twice a week, in locations throughout the Capital District.
Allen teaches a class of Burmese adults every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Albany, 405 Washington Ave. Most of her students have come from the Mae La Refugee Camp, 70 kilometers north of the Thai/Myanmar border town of Mae Sot.
"These people are victims of the civil war there. Some have lived in refugee camps on the border of Thailand for up to 20 years. Yet they still remain unbroken in spirit," said Allen. "It is very inspiring to work with them."
One of her students, Law Tha Pwi, spent 15 of his 23 years in the refugee camp. That's where he met his wife. They came to the Capital District four months ago with their 20-month-old daughter with help from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) settlement program. Through a laborious mix of English and Burmese, Law said he is sad because the USCRI relocated his sister to a city in Texas.
"It's nice when the families end up in the same place," said Allen, "but it doesn't always happen that way."
Seventy-year-old Laza Ru and his wife, Po Hser, 67, act as guides for the younger refugees in Allen's class. On a recent Saturday, Po is helping a 22-year-old student named Mu Mu with career-related words.