The Philadelphia Program Where Immigrants And Refugees Are Taught ‘This Land Is Your Land’

Story by Jenny A. Burkholder
Photos by John Flak

In a brightly painted classroom, Brae Howard, a volunteer teacher who makes her living as a photographer, asks her students to “repeat after me.” Her 10 Bhutanese ESL students enthusiastically sing, “This land is your land. This land is my land… from California to the New York island.”

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Volunteer teacher Brae Howard stands in front of her classroom. Photo by John Flak.

The teacher and students have gathered at Southeast by Southeast, a storefront that provides a supportive community space for immigrant and refugee families. Southeast by Southeast is part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Porch Light program, a joint collaboration with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services. The Porch Light program aims to achieve universal health and wellness among Philadelphians, especially those dealing with mental health issues.

Melissa Fogg, the Porch Light Program manager, saw that there “was no place for people to be together” in the South Philadelphia neighborhood, so what began as a series of community workshops and events has now blossomed into a thriving and vibrant community space. It’s a safe zone for people to share concerns, combat feelings of isolation and feel as if they are part of a community.

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Students originally from Bhutan learn English at Southeast by Southeast. Photo by John Flak.

Southeast by Southeast primarily serves the Burmese and Bhutanese immigrants and refugees who live in and around 8th Street and Snyder Avenue, a neighborhood that has been home to generations of immigrant communities over the years.

Bhutan is a small country nestled between India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and bordering China. A small, landlocked country, Bhutan lies entirely within the Himalayan mountain range. In the early 1990s, more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people were forced into exile. For the past 20 years, the Bhutanese people have been living in refugee camps. In 2008, a resettlement program for the Lhotshampa people has made it possible for more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees to start new lives in other countries. As of today, it is estimated there are more than 84,000 Bhutanese living in the United States.

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One of the many “Welcome” signs throughout the classroom. Photo by John Flak.

The Southeast by Southeast space, decorated with portraits of people in the community, reading and writing resources, and brightly woven “Welcome” signs, is a modest storefront. But with the help of volunteers and neighbors, Southeast by Southeast offers a wide variety of programs.

They include ESL for beginners, college students and advanced learners; a gathering space for Bhutanese and Burmese senior citizens; an arts education summer program for students, ages 9-12, for four hours every day of the week; a Nationalities Service Center (NSC) Family Strengthening Program, which helps families learn to balance their new way of life with their old ways of problem-solving; a women’s group and conversation club, led by a group of retiree volunteers from all over Philadelphia; a textile program curated by Nancy Volpe Beringer and funded by Mural Arts and PIDC, which helps women develop their co-op business skills; and a Chin language and Philadelphia Chin Baptist Church Sunday School, which is conducted in their home language.  

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Southeast by Southeast is part of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Photo by John Flak.

Given the Executive Orders signed by President Trump, many of these immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, feel “scared” and “angry,” according to Fogg, one of the center’s founders. They feel disempowered and are sometimes “retraumatized” by their fear. She says Southeast by Southeast provides an open door, a “place to come,” so neighbors can learn English, share their concerns and make an impact as a community.

Porch Light Program director Laure Biron sees the direct effects of having a space for the community to congregate safely. It creates a sense of “ownership,” she says, which directly affects one’s mental and physical health. When people feel supported, whether they are learning English, asking questions or creating art, they are able to form “social cohesion” and feel a sense of “social control.” This also leads to an ability to be resilient, a vital factor for stability in any community, especially those of immigrants and refugees.

It is estimated there are more than 84,000 Bhutanese living in the United States. Photo by John Flak.

On a recent Monday morning, as Brae Howard reviews questions for the U.S. Citizenship test, she tells her students to “listen for the important words.” Some in the room have passed the citizenship test; some are waiting to take the test until their English is more solid.

She asks them about geography: “Which country is south of the United States?” And in a chorus, the students respond: “Mexico.” Howard relies on repetition, a beaming smile, and one-on-one conversation to encourage each and every one of her students. Some of the Bhutanese refugees in the room are preliterate. So when Howard asks them to “practice penmanship,” this is an opportunity for them to practice their new writing skills.

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A student fills out a worksheet. Photo by John Flak.

One of the students is Man who says she “loves reading, writing and speaking English.” When asked to volunteer to read, Man takes the lead at the whiteboard. Here, she and Gori, another student, read the questions and answers on their sheet, practicing the skills they have been developing since they have been attending this class.

Meanwhile, the star student, Dropada, sits away from the group in her superhero wrap skirt and brightly colored shirt and shawl. She’s passed the citizenship test and encourages her friends to answer the questions and read aloud. When asked about what she likes about the United States, Dropada quickly and emphatically replies, “Everything!”  

At the end of the class, the students return to “This Land is Your Land” and sing the song again. But his time, when they sing, they place even more of an emphasis on my land:  “This land is your land. This land is my land.


Jenny A. Burkholder currently teaches English at Abington Friends School, a Quaker co-educational school in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. She has a B.A. with Special Honors in English from The George Washington University, an M.F.A. in poetry from Western Michigan University, and an M.S.Ed. from Northwestern University. Her poetry chapbook, Repaired, was recently published by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have been published in New American Writing, The Spoon River Poetry Review, poemmemoirstory, Emerge Literary Journal, The Prose-Poem Project, and Glimmer Train, among others. Her creative nonfiction has been published in the online issue of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art and Epiphany. She’s received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry and won the Glimmer Train October Poetry Open. When she’s not writing, she’s practicing and teaching yoga at Blue Banyan Yoga Studio & School.

John Flak is a documentary photographer and artist. For 20 years John has captured the essence of the Chicago and Philadelphia theatre communities, including Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Redmoon Theatre, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago; and 1812 Productions, PlayPenn New Play Development, Act II Playhouse, and Temple University in Philadelphia. In Chicago, he was the administrator and a photographer for Chicago In The Year 2000, a historic photo documentary archive that captured life in Chicago during the year 2000. John has always loved a lo-fi approach to his art, starting with a Holga camera in 2000, capturing unique scenes and patterns in the world to his current ongoing “Surfaces” project. You can follow John’s “Surfaces” project @jflakphoto on Instagram.

Copyright © 500 Pens. October 2017.