June 4, 2010

ESL classes begin to break cycle of homelessness

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It’s an average morning at the Refugee Women’s Alliance’s second level ESL class. Women and men from East Africa, Vietnam, Mexico and Bhutan trickle in from 9 until 9:30 a.m. Colorful kangas, a sarong-like outfit that is traditional garb for Somali women, hint to the more recent immigrants. Jeans, t-shirts and rain jackets point to those who might have recently started a new job.
Some of the class has been awake since 5 or 6 a.m., taking several buses to get to class, and some have lived in the U.S. for over ten years. And for the next three hours, these men and women who were farmers, drivers, teachers, and parents in their home country will all become students again.
The stakes are high for these students—English language classes at ReWa, like classes at other non-profits in Wash., are oriented around WorkFirst requirements, Washington’s welfare reform program. WorkFirst is based on Governor Christine Gregoire’s philosophy that “work is the best way to break the cycle of poverty for families.”
The program aims to develop skills, like basic English language proficiency, that will bring rapid employment for low-income families, and as is the case at ReWa, low-income refugees and immigrants.
While English language proficiency is the first priority, the instructor helps students learn how to give directions and recognize the names of vocations. But more is exchanged than vocabulary as the instructors and volunteers at ReWa conduct an ESL class. Vastly different cultures mix and blend as immigrants and refugees adjust to an American system of education that offers a few surprises: exercises that promote active learning rather than dictation and rote memorization, female teachers, and a profit-driven western mindset toward time and work.
But the teachers and volunteers at ReWa are among the first cultural mediators for their students, listening to stories of political turmoil and personal struggle while simultaneously preparing them for life in a vastly different culture. As Holly Merril, first level ESl instructor and WorkFirst teacher, says, “we often do things on African time.”
It’s a give and take relationship. When Merril jokingly tries to repeat a few words of Somali she’s learned, they smile and insist, “English!” Merril’s students face the plight of any recent immigrant—the inability to share their life story in a new language. And the students at ReWa face daily crisis situations most language learners don’t—men and women at ReWa face issues of domestic violence, unstable housing, unsuitable work, family stress and culture shock.
To begin to combat this challenge, Merril starts her beginning English classes with exercises in creative writing to encourage her students to both find a voice in English and incorporate their own life experience and ways of viewing the world.
By level three, students are stringing together sentences with a better understanding of the present progressive and past progressive tense than many college level professors. Activities encourage students to think about what life in America could provide for them and their children. And as many of the employees at ReWa can attest, most of them being past refugees or immigrants themselves, beginning ESL classes can break the generational cycle of homelessness and poverty.

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