By Susan Zingale-Baird
Last fall, I volunteered to teach English as a Second Language in Center City, Philadelphia, at the Nationalities Service Center. My classroom included intermediate English language students from a range of different countries. Teaching English to adult immigrants was a new opportunity for me. What I sought was an experience that might lead me to a new field; what I discovered was another step in a series of experiences that have led to a lifelong education on Burma.
I know about Burma because of my work at Bucknell, which, this year, celebrates a 150-year history with the largest mainland country in Southeast Asia. From 1991 to 2003, I worked in Bucknell’s Office of International Education. When I began, I knew nothing about the 1988 uprising, in which hundreds of student demonstrators were killed. I wasn’t even remotely aware of pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been detained in Burma since 1989, separated from her children and not able to see her British husband before he died of cancer. I couldn’t have told you a thing about the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to Thailand. But I had wonderful teachers — Gene Chenoweth, professor emeritus of political science, and Ben Willeford, professor emeritus of chemistry. Through their own compassion, I, too, gained an affection and appreciation for the Burmese people.
Invited to chair the Burma-Bucknell focus semester committee in 1998, I learned about Burma’s historic tie with Bucknell and the country’s troubled past. In 1999, President Bro Adams invited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be that year’s Commencement speaker. Because of her detention, she could not leave Burma, but she did write the Commencement address.
I left Bucknell in 2003 with a promise to many students, friends, and myself that I would continue my involvement in support of the Burmese people. I joined the U.S. Campaign for Burma and volunteered to be put under “house arrest,” raising $1,200 (half from Bucknell) for the nonprofit organization.
Each day that I taught English, a rather large group would gather in the hallway outside my classroom waiting for their class to begin. I soon learned they were from the Mae La camp on the Thailand-Burma border, 69 Burmese refugees (mostly from the Karen ethnic group) who had recently resettled in Philadelphia to escape the severe military crackdown, which began 20 years ago.
A few weeks and a bit of administrative juggling later, with no more than a crash course on teaching beginners, half the refugees were reassigned to me. It is an experience I am not likely to forget, just as I have not forgotten my teachers, the Burma-Bucknell focus semester, the graduation speech written by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Burmese students who are now alumni — my gratitude is heartfelt for the university that helped raise my conscience about Burma.
Susan Zingale-Baird works at the University of Pennsylvania, International Students and Scholar Services. She is co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Philadelphia chapter, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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