February 4, 2006
By MELISSA PIONZIO, Courant Staff Writer
On a mild January morning, Jody Putnam
banged loudly on an apartment door in Hartford's South End.
"Who are you?" a woman's
"I am Jody," Putnam responded
with a laugh. "Who are you?"
The door swung open and Mumino Sheikh,
a young Somali woman holding a baby, greeted Putnam with a grin
and a hug.
Putnam provides support services to
refugees through an outreach program sponsored by Jubilee House,
an education center in Hartford that offers an array of services.
On this afternoon, Putnam visited about
five families, helping them tackle such challenges as missing green
cards, unemployment benefits, tax paperwork and educational opportunities.
At the home of Sheikh, a 28-year-old
single mother of two, and her roommate Binto Kasai, also from Somalia,
Putnam determined that the women needed medical appointments, preschool
for their children and shoes to replace their plastic flip-flops.
"I get frustrated with the system,
not the people and their issues," Putnam said. "I just
put myself in their place. ... I can't imagine being dropped in
Somalia and having to fend for myself."
Her clients are Somali, Liberian, Burmese
and Bosnian, and Putnam is often received warmly by the people she
visits. Waving to her from apartment windows or rushing to speak
to her on the sidewalk, they seem eager to see her.
Putnam, who is 63 and lives in Glastonbury,
knows their children's names, attends their celebrations and brings
them warm clothes or rice when they run low on food.
"It's important that they know
that people in America care about them," she said. "I
don't just pick people up and drop them off, I try to have coffee
Putnam, who supports herself financially
through her psychotherapy practice, receives no salary from Jubilee
House, but is reimbursed for some of the services she provides through
its Refugee Assistance Fund.
Her outreach work began in 2001 when
she taught English as a Second Language for Catholic Charities.
Back then, most of her students were Bosnian. When she started volunteering
at Jubilee House in 2003, Putnam told the center's executive director,
Sister Maris Stella Hickey, about her work with refugees.
Hickey said she liked the idea of expanding
the center's services and agreed to sponsor a refugee assistance
program. "There are many needs that we need to reach out to
here," Hickey said. "We are here for the people of the
city, so certainly this is one way we can help."
The center offers a variety of services
for refugees, including ESL classes, writing and other educational
opportunities and houses the offices of Voices for Justice, an advocacy
Cindy Moeckel, another Jubilee House
volunteer, teaches a weekly ESL class to six South End neighborhood
Somali women. Because they all have young children and no child-care
options, Moeckel teaches the class in the apartment of one of the
"I had the good grace and good
fortune to bumble into this. It is truly exhilarating," said
Moeckel, who lives in West Hartford. "I love these people."
During the classes, Moeckel sits cross-legged
on the carpeted floor, surrounded by crawling babies and their mothers,
who speak rapidly to one another in Somali.
When she first met her students, Moeckel
thought they might form a discussion group to address the emotional
and physical needs of adjusting to life in the United States. "Of
course this is ludicrous because they can't speak English,"
she said. "But we are working toward it."
At a recent lesson, Moeckel asked questions,
encouraging full-sentence answers. They practiced using "I,"
"you," "me" and "us," while Moeckel
wrote their answers in marker.
"I just wing it," Moeckel
said. "I have them reiterate useful daily knowledge, but also
so they will be able to converse with another person."
The women were eager to learn, often
laughing at themselves and each other, as they repeated every word
"I like Cindy, the teacher,"
said 30-year-old Hawa Noor, mother of two. "Cindy read and
write to us, it's good. English is good."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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