By Anna O'Neal

Kywe,* an older Burmese man of small stature and gentle spirit finds a seat in the front of the classroom every day. During lessons, he sits up straight, focusing closely on the curves of every letter the teacher writes on the board. He furiously copies it all, apologizing under his breath when he makes a mistake. When we read together, he follows along in a bashful, hushed tone. That's the only time I hear him speak.

Admittedly, my interaction with Kywe has been minimal until this week. I would ask him how he was - the only question he would answer. That was the extent of our conversation. If I asked him what he did yesterday, he would look at me, and after a while, smile shyly. I would smile back. I wasn’t sure if I should press further, for fear of misunderstanding or making him feel uncomfortable.

Today, however, I sat next to him in class to help him hear the teacher. He needs a hearing aid in one ear. As I sat down, he looked at me in fear, waving his hands, and said, "No English, no English." How sad, I thought. If he is afraid to speak or listen to English in such a safe environment, he probably never speaks out in the community. How will we help him if he is so afraid? How will he communicate? 

Later during the class, the teacher suggested I take him out of the room to figure out why he was uncomfortable speaking. Clearly he was afraid, but why? I sat down next to him on the side of his good ear and began asking him questions. I waited patiently for each answer, but eventually, they started to flow.

Kywe told me about his family and how his wife had recently passed away. He told me about her likes and dislikes and those of his sons. Through this, I learned a small part of his story; a story of perseverance, strength, and love. When he got stuck, he would explain that he couldn't speak English. But I told him that even though it was broken English, and slow in coming, he could speak!

The next day, the teacher sat with him, helping him hear as I taught the lesson. When I asked for a volunteer in the class to answer a question, he eagerly sat straight up, almost coming out of his chair ready to answer. The teacher pointed for me to call on him, and he gave an answer! It wasn't the answer I was looking for, but it wasn't wrong either. We praised his participation!

In a matter of 24 hours, I saw Kywe change. It was tangible. I hope it's sustainable. He found the courage to speak up! He was able to hear and follow the classroom activity. I can't be sure exactly what changed inside of him, but I can continue to encourage him to speak by listening and giving him time to respond.

Kywe helped me learn the value of taking the risk of misunderstanding to speak with someone. You never know how someone’s story might change you. At World Relief, our goal is to continue providing the kind of community in which both English students like Kywe and interns and volunteers like myself are safe to take risks so that together we can thrive.

* Kywe’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.