Education for the Mind & Spirit: Refuge for Refugees

The Boaz Ministry of the Korean Church of Syracuse is helping refugees, one computer class at a time. This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.

By Andrea Roxas

Myanmar refugee Nightin Gale has lived in the U.S. for barely over a year.  Despite adversity, the 16-year-old dreams of being a doctor.  Thanks to the Boaz Ministry, Gale is learning the necessary computer skills that will bring her closer to achieving her academic and career goals.

“I hope in the future, I have the education to succeed,” Gale says.

Gale is just one of 17 refugee students enrolled in a class this fall under the Boaz Ministry, a project the Korean Church of Syracuse started in September 2007.  The ministry provides free 10-week semesters of beginner and intermediate computer classes on Monday nights to supply refugees — a majority of which come from Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal — with the job skills and academic preparation needed to fulfill their American dreams.

“We want to try to give hope and love to them — our final goal is to give life,” Reverend Yong Ju Jee, head pastor of the church, says.  Jee believes the poor life conditions these refugees endured have battered their spirits.  It’s the goal of the Boaz Ministry to restore them.

The project received its name from the Old Testament of the Bible.  Boaz was a man who provided Ruth, a refugee in Jerusalem, with physical, mental and spiritual care.  Boaz also means “rescue” or “redeemer” in Hebrew.

Since the project is a type of ministry, the curriculum for Boaz classes is grounded in Christianity.  When students learn how to use the Internet, the URLs they visit are Christian Web sites.  When they learn how to use Microsoft Word on PowerPoint, the words they type include gospel verses and the basic tenets of Christianity.

Even though most of the refugees practice Buddhism and Hinduism, they do not object to this Christianized education.  Boaz Ministry Director Su Jee says the refugees have “opened their hearts and souls to any advantage they could get.”

Currently, there are six instructors for these classes.  In addition, a personal teaching assistant is assigned to each refugee for additional help.  Many of these volunteers are Syracuse University students, like Christina Eunyoung Choi, a doctoral student at SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and one of the founding members of the Boaz program.

“SU students use their talents to teach refugee students,” Choi says.

Such students include sophomore Sara Park, an accounting major at the Whitman School of Management, who manages ministry funds as the accountant of the Boaz Project.

Sunghye Lee, a doctoral student majoring in instructional design at SU’s School of Education, develops the program’s curriculum and lesson plans.  While she says it has been difficult to blend Christianity and computer skills into one class, she believes SU has properly equipped her for the job.

“My major perfectly fit [sic] this work,” Lee said.

Some SU student volunteers use their personal experiences to help the refugees.  In Gun Kim, a junior mathematics major, admits he had a difficult time adjusting to life in the U.S. when he emigrated from Korea two years ago.

“I know how I went through the process, and it has been wonderful to get to know the refugees who are still struggling to have better opportunities in a new environment,” Kim says.  “It’s not just about teaching them how to type faster or creating fancy PowerPoint slides.”

Overcoming the culture clash has been the biggest challenge in teaching the refugees, Boaz instructor Chris Lee says.  Instructors must work hard to effectively communicate their lessons to refugees who still don’t fully understand the American language and its culture.

But for the Boaz volunteers and directors, all that hard work pays off.  Upon graduating from the Boaz program, one Bhutan refugee was promoted from a low-level maintenance job to a managerial level position at a hotel.  His newly acquired computer skills helped him rise in the corporate ranks.

With such successful graduates, the future is bright for the Boaz Ministry.  Out of about 11,000 Presbyterian churches in the country, the Korean Church of Syracuse was the sole recipient of the Presbyterian Church (USA) compassion and justice grant totalling $50,000.  The money will fund the program until December 2011.  After that, Choi says they plan to look for other sources of funding.  The Boaz program has proven to be a fulfilling experience for both the volunteers and refugees involved.

“This is the kind of opportunity that I always wanted in my life,” SU freshman and Boaz teaching assistant Young Kim says.  “I find it very rewarding.”

Gale, the 16-year-old refugee and future doctor, happily takes in all the education she can get.  “I just want more, more and more,” she says.

The Lodi Mission

Drive five minutes away from campus and the change in atmosphere is palpable.  Just on the other side of Erie Boulevard is Lodi Street, a rundown area of Syracuse dominantly populated by refugees from South Asia.

Christina Eunyoung Choi, one of the founders of the Boaz Ministry, says this is where she and the other Boaz volunteers go to recruit refugees for their computer education program.  This is also where the Korean Church of Syracuse plans to extend its aid to refugees.

The Lodi Mission, as it has come to be called, is the church’s next big project.  Choi says by next summer they hope to secure land for a building where Bible camp can be held for refugee children.

SU students currently provide music and art lessons for young Korean students through the church.  The Lodi Mission is an extension of this program targeted for refugee children.  It will also provide physical education and Bible study.

According to Soojin Kim, chief administrator of the Boaz Ministry, the “mission” of the Lodi Mission is to reduce the gap between the poor and the rich.

“We want to make the darkest street in Syracuse the brightest,” Kim says.

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