Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Elder Refugees in the Bluegrass State Face Challenge of Language Barriers

One of the biggest barriers refugees face when they arrive in America is learning English.  A program in Louisville, Kentucky helps refugees who are 60 and older cross the language barrier.

“How long has she been in the United States?”

(Conversation in Kinyarwanda language) One year and five months.”

“So she came here when she was 88 years old?”

“She was 89.”

Interpreter Patrick Bagaza speaks with 90-year-old Therese Nyamubyeyi during a trip with the Louisville Refugee Elder Program to the Speed Art Museum. The language is Kinyarwanda and they’re talking about how Nyamubyeyi fled from the violence in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“She was a refugee to a neighbor country Rwanda almost 20 years,” said Bagaza.

The museum trip is one of the many ways the Louisville Refugee Elder Program encourages better English language skills. The program is sponsored by Kentucky Refugee Ministries and funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

A major part of the Louisville Refugee Elder Program is offering English classes every Tuesday and Thursday. 

Some refugees in the program speak several languages, including Kilozo Lubwena, who is from Kinshasa in the Demoratic Republic of Congo. Lubwena is fluent in Bembe and Swahili and proficient in French.

The English classes also create a sense of community that can help refugees move forward from their many hardships.

Retired banker Beth Clark is one of the English teachers and said most of the refugees are consistent about coming to class.

“So we feel like we’re doing something right, even if they don’t learn a lot of English that really sticks with them. And some of them do learn and do graduate up from this class up to the next level. But some don’t and have come for years to the same class,” said Clark. “And they’re voluntarily coming and we love to have them, and you know, whoever they are we try to do our best to make America feel like a friendly place to them.”

Bonnie Lossie is a retired nurse and art therapist who is an English teacher with the program. She says she has one general goal for refugees who have to begin with the basics. “…how to write their name and their address. So to do that they have to learn the numbers and the alphabet.”
Namugisha Namahoro is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and her native language is Kinyarwanda. She worked on writing her zip code with English teacher Kevin Marie Nuss.

“We’re trying to make sure they can write their address as a starting point for any documentation they might need or anything of that nature,” said Nuss.

“These folks are all elders. So it just amazes me that some of these classes, these folks have never been in a school so they don’t even have the letters or the numbers as a starting point,” said Nuss. “So in their 70s, 80s and even early 90s, they’re in a new country, completely different environment trying to learn this drastically different language.  

And Nuss has learned to say “sing” in Swahili… “kuimba.”

During the past few years, participants in the Louisville Refugee Elder Program have come from Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Burma (also called Myanmar), Central African Republic, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Vietnam. 

Research shows the  challenge of learning a new language.  Yiwei Chen is a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. 

"Actually, the language barrier has been reported the top kind of barrier for immigrants and refugees," said Chen, who presented her research at a November 2018 conference of the Gerontological Society of America.

A 2018 report from the Urban Institute, "Bringing Evidence to the Refugee Integration Debate," found that, "Linguistic English language proficiency improves with more time in the U.S., but remains a major challenge." 

This story was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and Silver Century Foundation.”

Related Content