AURORA | Htoo Hay, 68, came to Colorado four years ago as a Burmese refugee. He is unassuming in his white sneakers and green vest, and often looks at floor when he speaks in Karenni about life in war-torn camps where food was rationed and conditions were crowded and unsanitary. But his face lights up as soon as soon he hears “The Cupid Shuffle.”
Hay was one of five refugee seniors who swayed to the left and right, clapped and grinned as he took part in an hourlong Zumba class at the Aurora Center for Active Adults. The class, which started at the center a month ago, is held every Friday afternoon.
The class is part of a pilot program for refugee seniors that is a partnership between the Colorado Refugee Service Program and the Denver Regional Council of Governments. It’s open to any refugee resident in Aurora who is over 60 and wants to participate, and is funded through a $40,000 federal grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Colorado resettles nearly 2,000 refugees a year, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services, with more than half of that total number resettled in Aurora because the cost of living is cheaper than in Denver.
Like Hay, Aurora’s refugees live mostly in northern neighborhoods that straddle the Denver border near East 13th Avenue and Yosemite Street. The Aurora Center for Active Adults is located in Aurora’s Del Mar Park, near neighborhoods where many refugees live.
Clapping and shuffling next to Hay is Ka Paw Htoo, a community navigator with the Colorado African Organization who provided Htoo Hay’s transportation and helped him sign up for the class as part of the program. She is also a Burmese immigrant who lives in Aurora.
“Most of our old people, they’re staying home and without the exercise,” she said. “That’s why I want my community to come here and then (exercise) when they get older. Then you feel better.”
Colorado’s Burmese refugees come from six different ethnic minority groups, each with their own distinct languages and cultures. The groups include Karen, Chin, Karenni, Mon, Kachin and Shan. The United States has resettled nearly 5,000 refugees from Burma, according to the Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, with about 3,500 of them identifying as Karen.
The refugee senior program at Aurora’s senior center is not just a weekly Zumba class, according to Jill Eelkema, a counselor with DRCOG’s Area Agency on Aging, but also a way to introduce refugee residents to city resources.
“We see a lot of elder refugees who don’t utilize services until they’re in a dire situation and they end up in the emergency room, mostly because they don’t know the existing service systems that are available to support them in preventative care,” she said. “By starting this program, we decrease isolation and increase community connections.”
Through the program, refugee seniors, most of whom hail from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, are provided with free meals, transportation, a weight room, wellness clinics, and English as a second language classes.
Eelkema said the program has five community navigators that serve 24 refugees who participate on a regular basis.
She said the refugees who participated in the Zumba class had to go through a 12-week-training in the center’s Silver Sneakers program, a reduced-cost fitness class for Medicare-eligible people, in order to take the class.
She added that Zumba is not their only option at the center.
“We have a three-week class to learn to use the billiard tables,” she said. “It’s about whatever people are interested in, and what can help refugees get plugged in to their community.”
Wanda Serino-Washington, who teaches the Zumba class, said it has been a huge hit with the refugee participants. She said she sees anywhere from 12 to 20 participants each week.
According to her, the refugee seniors like it more than other fitness classes because the Zumba class is more open.
“It’s a little less regimented,” she said. “I hope this continues because you can feel the energy of everyone and it’s just fun. We’re not always on the right foot but who cares. We’re moving.”
For more information on the program, call 303-480-5634 or visit drcog.org/programs/area-agency-aging/elder-refugee-program