April 5, 2019
Elder Refugees in the Bluegrass State Face Challenge of Language Barriers
By: Diverse Elders

by Rhonda Miller. This article originally appeared on WKU Public Radio. This is part one of a three part series; read part two here and read part three here.

Volunteer English teacher Bonnie Lossie looks over an art project with Aita Signh-Gurung, who is from Bhutan and created a house common in his home country. (Photo by Rhonda Miller)

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.”

Jacqueline Balazi fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo after her husband was killed and was in a refugee camp in Uganda before coming to Kentucky in 2016. She is pictured with her granddaughter at the Refugee Elder Program in Louisville. (Photo by Rhonda Miller)

Some refugees in the program speak several languages, like 63-year-old Jacqueline Balazi.

“My first language is French and Swahili.”

Balazi said she learned some English when she was in a refugee camp in Uganda, after she fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Our country has many problems, like war, kill people, kill innocents.” said Balazi. “My husband was victim for killing in Congo, yeah, killed.”

Another refugee in the Louisville program who speaks sevearl languages is 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.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.