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Refugee women gain tech skills during pandemic

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Community health promoters Sima Qaderi and Farishta Sadaat of the IRC in Turlock host the Afghan Path Towards Wellness course via Facebook Messenger. The current COVID-19 pandemic has led several female clients to gain digital literacy skills as they take classes online.

Modesto Junior College instructor Emma Berdino didn’t have much hope when she learned her ESL class would be forced to go online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of her students, all women from Afghanistan and clients of the IRC in Turlock, were likely too technologically challenged to use a phone app to complete their homework prior to the viral outbreak.  

“Most weren’t able to figure it out,” she said. “I thought, oh my goodness, we’re totally going to lose this class, because they’re not going to be able to do it.” 

Berdino is grateful to be wrong, as nearly two-thirds of her students continue to take the course remotely after going exclusively online. “They just definitely far exceeded my expectations for sure,” she said. 

In the current era of “social distancing,” many of the IRC in Turlock’s female clients are staying connected as they learn new tech skills. A combination of online coursework and computer donations from businesses and nonprofits is helping IRC female beneficiaries to gain digital literacy abilities and remain networked.   

“They’re not losing the courage of learning,” said Marina Asator, Resettlement Manager for the IRC in Turlock. “When they first come, they’re interested in learning English, but when there’s a gap, they lose that courage. This allows women to stay connected.” 

Some of the women enrolled in IRC Turlock’s Afghan Path Towards Wellness (APTW) class, which focuses on physical and mental wellness, couldn’t turn on a cell phone or log into an account prior to the pandemic. Now, they are regularly using technology to learn about health and mental wellness skills, said Community Health Promoter Farishta Sadaat. “They’re learning something new,” she said. 

In addition to learning about health and wellness issues, including information about preventing the spread of COVID-19, women in the class are inadvertently learning about social media, as APTW students are being taught via Facebook Messenger.    

These skills are further helping women to be connected to friends and family both at home and abroad, explained fellow APTW Community Health Promoter Sima Qaderi. 

“It’s so important because they want to know about the health of their families around the world,” Qaderi said. Some husbands in these families are also encouraging their wives to learn how to use digital devices both to stay connected and to find ways to keep their kids occupied during the pandemic, Qaderi added.  

A laptop dropped off near an IRC beneficiary's apartment last week will help a female IRC client participate in ESL classes online. Photo: Jonathan Partridge/IRC

Rohullah Zekria, who moved from Afghanistan to Manteca last year, requested a laptop donation from the IRC earlier this month so his wife, Wahida, could continue attending an ESL class at a local adult school. Zekria said his wife was grateful for the laptop—a donation from Modesto nonprofit 2nd Chance Modesto Computer Refurbishing—noting that digital technology is particularly helpful for distance learning and is also useful for finding employment and staying engaged. “It is a necessary tool for everybody,” Zekria said. 

Nonprofits such as 2nd Chance Modesto Computer Refurbishing and companies such as Planson International continue to provide IRC Turlock clients with computer donations to keep them connected. Terry Scott, founder of 2nd Chance Modesto Computer Refurbishing, has supplied the IRC in Turlock with dozens of laptop and desktop computers during the past two years. His nonprofit restores used computers from Central Valley schools and donates them to underprivileged youth and families with financial challenges. While a quarter of American households did not have Internet access as of 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Scott noted that digital technology is becoming increasingly important, even for applying for unemployment benefits during the current pandemic. 

“It’s just another form of literacy,” Scott said. “Being able to have a computer and knowing how to use it is just as important as being able to read.” 

In addition to distributing donated computers, the IRC in Turlock is in the process of bridging the digital divide by bringing on a Dari and Pashto-speaking volunteer who will help clients learn how to use computer donations and obtain Internet access if they haven’t already done so. Priority for computer donations and for volunteer digital access assistance will be given to students in the Turlock office’s upcoming Vocational ESL class in May. This will ensure that students can access the course once it starts, regardless of how long the pandemic lasts. 

In the meantime, Berdino of Modesto Junior College said she is grateful for the way technology is already connecting the current and former IRC clients enrolled in her course. “They wouldn’t be able to take the class for sure if they didn’t have access,” she said.