Most immigrants are illiterate in their native languages, yet they are expected to learn English upon arrival. Literacy is seen as the refugees' the best chance to contribute to their new home and become successful in America. For our collaboration on literacy with WBEZ's Front and Center, Daniel Robison brings us this story from Buffalo, New York.
Abdi Hussein sits in a cramped classroom full of old metal chairs that clank and scrape the faded tile floor. Here, students learn idioms such as “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and how to order adjectives. This is a long way from Somalia, where Hussein struggled to find food and lived in constant fear of being dragged into the country’s ongoing civil war. He said, “There’s horrible things. People kill each other. That’s why we get help to get in here. People call us the refugee.”
Now, Hussein lives in a growing Somali community in a poor area of Buffalo. Aging, inexpensive housing has proven fertile ground for ethnic neighborhoods made up largely of refugees. While at home and around friends, Hussein says he’s tempted to speak his native Somali language. However, he was told that learning English will help him find a job in America and said, “English is not my language. It’s difficult to speak and read and understand the words. But I study hard.”
During class, Hussein and two dozen other refugees from Ghana, Iraq, Burma and Afghanistan are clustered in a room. Most refugees are enrolled within 72 hours of arrival. Each student knows a different language or dialect.
Pruyn instructs his class to speak as a group. He says it’s the best way to make the most progress with the most students, and said, “Reading and writing are a secondary concern. It kind of hurts to put them on a backburner. But if you go to another country, the first thing you need to do is speak.”
For most refugees, classrooms are an entirely new concept. Many have never used electricity, a phone or a pencil before. They start at the very beginning and learn by tracing the alphabet.
Ann Brittain is with Catholic Charities of Buffalo, which offers 10 levels of English classes. She said, “We’re not looking for people to quote Shakespeare. We want people to know the difference between hot and cold. Slow down, go faster, very basic life skills and employment skills that they need.”
Learning English beyond the basics hinges on constantly being pushed to improve all literacy skills, such as listening, reading and writing, says Amy Lawrence from Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo. Still, she cautions that there’s no formula for success and said, “There’s very little stuff out there on how to take someone who virtually doesn’t know any spoken language or written language and teach them everything. That’s something we’ve had to piece together.”
Unfortunately, English classes don’t pay the bills. Refugees are responsible for paying for their plane tickets to the U.S., so most are immediately in debt. Lawrence says most refugees would rather spend time looking for work or earning an income than sitting in class. “They want the jobs now. They want the skills now. They don’t want to wait a couple of years. Many of them have families. They have to start providing right now,” said Lawrence.
In essence, that’s what local leaders want from refugees: to help the local economy by getting jobs and building a new tax base. Most refugees settle for work in restaurants and hotels that don’t require fluency in English. Government officials say that refugees are also in high demand at local companies. But with Buffalo’s cheap rent and low cost of living, some opt to start their own businesses.
Luis Sano opened a shop called Global Villages. Her shop features colorful baskets, handmade jewelry and painted ostrich eggs as big as footballs. She also has instruments such as the carimba. Sano said, “Right now I have products from Rwanda, which is my native country. And then South Africa, Swaiziland, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania.”
Sano came to Buffalo in 2007 as a refugee. She received business training from a local non-profit, and eventually, a microloan. Her shop started as just a table among many in a flea market-like store for small refugee businesses.
“You get to be shown it’s possible. The community shows us that ‘yes, you are a refugee, but that’s just a status, not a state of mind.’ It’s not like you can’t think or you cannot do this, you can. If you are told you can, you can,” said Sano.
Now, with a growing customer base, Sano is expanding into a larger space. She plans to hire fellow refugees to work in the store, which she hopes will help them learn English. She’s also eager to help them write business plans and, eventually, open their own shops here in Buffalo.