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Volunteers Embrace Refugees' Needs

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 voice demanded.

"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 and listen."

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 group.

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 families.

"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 Moeckel said.

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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