Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

ESL English Classes Set Nepali Children on Road to Better Life

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

ESL English Classes Set Nepali Children on Road to Better Life

Article excerpt

When 19-year-old Yadhavi Pokhrel speaks, her voice is sure and strong. A bright woman in a bright red shirt, she switches deftly between Nepali and English as she talks over her family members in their Carrick apartment.

Ms. Pokhrel's language skills, like her voice, are confident. She passed the English as a Second Language (ESL) program in Pittsburgh Public Schools when she graduated from Brashear High School in 2012. Among the 710 students in the district's ESL program, Nepali is the most common primary language.

But her parents, Ganesh and Menuka Pokhrel, only speak Nepali. They need a translator to understand their oldest daughter's eager words when she chatters in English, and interpreter Ser Darji mediates this conversation for the couple. Mr. Pokhrel's smile is full and proud as his oldest daughter talks about her three siblings, the Nepali refugee camp where the family lived for 18 years and her education in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Pokhrel and his wife want this for their children - this American life, this English education, this new home - and, for non- English speakers like these parents, the ESL program in Pittsburgh Public Schools has been their children's gateway to life in the United States.

They also want to become citizens of the United States and learn English, but as adults, they don't have the ESL program at Pittsburgh Public Schools to help them. For now, their children's futures are the most important.

"They were stateless, countryless, for over two decades now," Mr. Darji said. "[Mr. Pokhrel] wishes for the children to have better education with their life than [their parents] had."

The Pokhrels moved to the United States in 2009 - "June 16," 16- year-old son Raj added automatically with pride. They first settled in Atlanta, but they migrated again to Pittsburgh in 2010 because they had family nearby. Raj and his siblings had learned some English at their school in the refugee camp where they grew up, but their accents and the local dialect did not assimilate well with language spoken at their schools in Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

Raj is still waiting for his test scores to know if he has also officially passed Brashear High School's ESL program, but he said he is confident he won't have to take the supplementary language classes during his upcoming junior year.

"When I was in Atlanta, I wasn't a good speaker. They imitated me, but I ignored them," Raj said. "[They said,] 'Didn't you go to school in Nepal? You come here and you don't know anything?' So that was kind of embarrassing.

"Now, no one even messes with me."

The family is ethnic Nepali but originates from Bhutan, Raj explained. In 1989, the Bhutanese government began a cultural purge that targeted Nepalis living in the southern region of the country. By the early 1990s, more than 100,000 Nepalis had fled Bhutan for refugee camps in Nepal. The United States has absorbed more of those refugees than any other nation, and a pocket of Nepalis has sprung up in Pittsburgh in the past few years.

Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services for Jewish Family and Children's Service, said approximately 4,000 Nepali refugees like the Pokhrel family now live in this area. Her office helps to resettle refugees who come to Pittsburgh in need of jobs and housing. …

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