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TMCNet:  Christmas offers teaching moment

[December 20, 2012]

Christmas offers teaching moment

Dec 20, 2012 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The World Relief DuPage Christmas party had the trappings of any other holiday gathering -- a table full of sweets, smiling toddlers on the loose, singers leading carols.

But the party was unique because of the people who'd gathered at the College Church Commons in Wheaton on Tuesday to celebrate. Dozens of refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Iraq and other countries sat at the tables.

They are among the hundreds who had to flee their countries and were directed to DuPage World Relief to get resettled, learning English, job development skills and American customs.

Learning about traditions and holidays in the United States is one of many ways the staff and volunteers at the agency help integrate the newcomers, said Jennifer Stocks, communication manager for World Relief offices in Wheaton and Aurora. Christmas, for the refugees, including many who are not Christian, is a learning tool.

"You really didn't get a choice to leave your country; you had to leave for a variety of reasons, but the reality is that you're here now, so we want to help you become the best that you can be in the new culture," Stocks said.

For the Christmas concert and party this week, those learning English in advanced classes tackled Christmas carols such as "12 Days of Christmas" -- while those new to learning English focused on vocabulary words like "stockings" and "wreath" while discussing traditions such as gift giving, hanging lights and Santa Claus.

"I want them to understand that in America, most people celebrate Christmas," said an English teacher with the agency, Gloria McDowell, during a break from a lesson with adult students. "They see it and hear it in the stores. I just want them to understand what it is." World Relief, a Christian organization that partners with local churches, began offering services in DuPage County in 1979 and then opened an additional office in Aurora in 1999, according to its website. It's one of the few agencies that the U.S. government helps fund to resettle refugees.

Refugees are led to this area if they have a family tie or if there's already a significant population here from their home country, said Stocks. In addition to classes, the agency helps refugees find apartments and housing in the area, with the help of federal funds.

Right now, the classes serve about 100 children and almost 200 adults in Wheaton alone, said Karen Jealouse, education director for the agency. Each year, the Wheaton and Aurora offices combined help resettle between 500 and 600 refugees, Jealouse said.

Jealouse said 15 to 20 different countries are usually represented among the classes.

"As they're learning English together, they're making friends with people of other cultures. That's a really a fun thing to see," she said.

The kids in the program also performed songs Tuesday. Marilyn Huffman, early childhood program manager for World Relief DuPage, said some classrooms used the Christmas story of Jesus' birth as a sequencing activity.

"Many of them haven't heard the story, so it's introducing a new story to them," Huffman said.

At the Christmas party, adult students were encouraged to bring a dish native to their home country to share. Homemade rice and noodle dishes filled giant tables at the party Tuesday.

MaSan Htin, 31, from Burma, who is in an advanced English class, said she brought a noodle dish to the gathering.

"It's a happy day," she said.

mmanchir@tribune.com ___ (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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