Becoming Fluent in a New Life
Alyssa, David and Albert are among the hundreds of refugees resettled by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the New York City area each year. They come from four continents and more than a dozen countries. Some have advanced degrees, some are learning basic English. What draws them together is their identity as refugees and the newness of all things "American".
Fortunately, these refugees have support from the IRC and the community. Tonight, a slew of volunteers have convened on the eleventh floor of the IRC's offices in midtown Manhattan for Literacy for Life classes. The volunteers are "conversation partners" who have trained at the International Center, and their task, for one hour every Monday evening, is to practice English with recent refugees. As the weeks roll by, however, the volunteers are doing much more than helping refugees learn new words—they are offering encouragement, technical assistance and advice on nuanced topics.
In September, volunteers and students begin with small talk: "Where were you born? Do you enjoy eating pizza? Do you sing or play an instrument?" As trust develops between student and teacher, the nature of the discussion changes. The students discuss their fears of using ATM machines, their frustration with customer service phone lines and their feelings about being the first in their families to attend college.
"I think these classes are meaningful, because the students meet people who have been to college," one volunteer says. "My partner asks about financial aid, scholarships and the cost of books. He sees how the teachers and volunteers believe that he can go to college if he gives it enough time. He sees that other people have done it while working and having to be part of a family and maintaining other responsibilities." Ultimately, it seems, the volunteers learn as much from the students as the students learn from them.
"For me, education means freedom," says Adam, a refugee who arrived in New York from Sudan more than a year ago. "In my country, we could not go to school. I do not understand why everyone does not rush to school here. It is a privilege to learn, and I want to learn all that I can here."
Adam is coming to class to improve his English. He spoke no English when he arrived. Now he wants to learn about grammar and diction, even though his skills, to most observers, seem exceptional. He also wants to learn about computer software programs, so that he can apply for a promotion at work.