Finney County residents from more than six countries gathered around a table at the Finney County Public Library Thursday afternoon, speaking out in new and native languages so they could share one conversation.

The subject? Birthdays.

Since October, the library and LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition’s Neighborhood Learning Center have hosted weekly Conversation Circles, an hour of informal discussion for adults to practice speaking English and learn about other residents’ cultures. The sessions are open to anyone and begin at 2 p.m. every Thursday, alternating between the library and learning center every other week.

Pam Tuller, library director, said she often had seen local residents new to English struggle with language barriers at the library. After looking into similar programs at other libraries, Tuller and her staff partnered with Birgit Lemke at the learning center, who was able to help recruit attendees and select relevant conversation topics.

“I think it’s a valuable service because ... it helps people understand that the library is for everybody. It’s not just for a certain culture or a certain economic standard. It is for everybody and anybody who wants to come to the library. Having a program that reaches out to the people that may not know that is really important to the community…” Tuller said.

By offering chances for people to learn together and from each other, the classes strengthen the community overall, Lemke said.

Each meeting opens with a short presentation about a certain topic, generally about a basic element of American culture, like customs or holidays. From there, the group breaks into a more informal discussion about cultural similarities and differences from attendees’ home countries, or about whatever the group wants to talk about, said Cody Spitzer, adult services coordinator at the library.

“We can kind of share our culture with them, and they can share their culture with us. It’s kind of a learning opportunity for both sides,” Spitzer said.

At the most recent meeting, present residents had immigrated to Garden City from Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Mexico and Haiti. Some had been coming to the sessions since they first became available, while others had only lived in America a few months.

Young parents often come to the meetings, Tuller said. On Thursday, four kids played on the floor and at the table as their parents talked.

Spitzer talked about American birthdays for adults and children, covering cake and candles and school celebrations and sweet sixteens.

Some listened, some chatted, some translated for those newer to English. A dial-up translator on a cell phone helped one woman better understand the discussion. People came together and broke off in pockets of conversation and came together again.

Attendees talked about how the Somali culture does not keep track of birthdays, instead just celebrating when the baby is actually born. The family will kill two goats when the baby is named if it’s a boy and one if it’s a girl. They give gifts made of gold. Ethiopians celebrate birthdays every year. Clothes are standard gifts in Myanmar, and toys, jewelry or clothes in Haiti. In Mexico, people celebrate with food and family.

The conversation was light and casual but did not shy from reality. A woman from the Congo said people from her country celebrate birthdays in times of peace, but not in times of violence. When the discussion shifted to wedding and anniversary celebrations, she said she could not celebrate her wedding because her parents had been killed in the conflict when she was a child and a party was not deemed appropriate.

Everyone listened.

At the earlier sessions, no one wanted to talk in English or their native language, Spitzer said. Even Thursday, some newer members still sat slightly hesitant behind the language barrier. As the months have gone by, most attendees have become more comfortable, he said. The environment is welcoming, and everyone enjoys listening to each other.

Wilma Paul, who is from Haiti, already speaks Haitian Creole and French, she said, but is still learning English. America is a country that speaks English, she said. It’s the language she hears when visiting her doctor or dentist. At home, her son will sometimes speak to her in English to help her practice. It’s something she wants to learn.

“I’m trying, I’m trying. Every time, every day, I try,” Paul said.

The Conversation Circles are a helpful addition to the Neighborhood Learning Center’s beginner English classes and Garden City Community College’s English Second Language program, Lemke said, one that helps people build confidence with the new language. They set space aside for practice and give people a chance to learn from each other, she said.

Attendees Maria Rodriguez and Martha Lopez, who are from Mexico, said the sessions help them practice English, but they really value what they learn about other cultures. They’ve met new people, heard new languages and gained a better understanding of other countries and traditions, they said.

Lopez said her circle of friends extends beyond the Mexican community, now including people from Somalia and Myanmar.

“For us, it’s important to know them, to know each other,” Rodriguez said.

For more information about the Conversation Circles, call the library, 605 E. Walnut St., at (620) 272-3680 or Lemke at the Neighborhood Learning Center, 305 W. Mary St., Apt. DD2, at (620) 277-5728.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.