She came to America for a better life than the one she left behind.
It wasn’t easy to get here, and there’s so much she misses about the country she once called home. This land is still foreign to her in so many ways.
Still, she loves America, and she’s grateful to be here.She wants desperately to work someday – to contribute to her family.
Her young daughters are learning English at school, and her husband speaks it with improving fluency every day.
When the three of them speak English, she feels left out and lonely. She’s struggling to learn the new language – trying to pick up words she hears on the television, or make sense of her daughters’ homework.
But she just can’t seem to learn fast enough. How will she ever learn enough to find a job?
She doesn’t drive, and can’t leave the baby to go to a language class. She wouldn’t know where to look for one anyway.
With each passing week, her American dream seems further out of reach.
The Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program (IRWP), a 2016 grantee of the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, works to increase the independence and reduce the isolation of immigrant and refugee women by teaching them basic English and practical living skills in the security of their own homes.
The organization recognizes that some immigrant and refugee women – and men – cannot attend an English language class for a variety of reasons – lack of transportation, young children at home or health issues. To solve that problem, IRWP teachers come to the student’s home.
“It doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn; they just can’t get there to learn,” said Pat Joshu, executive director of IRWP. “Our volunteers go to the home, for typically an hour two times a week and work one on one with their student.”
IRWP was founded in 1995 as a ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“One of the Sisters had met some Vietnamese women who were struggling to learn English and really could not go to a class,” Joshu said. “So she started working with them to try to help and it kind of caught on from there.”
When Joshu joined the organization 12 years ago, they had roughly 25 students and most of the teachers were nuns. IRWP became a 501(c)(3) in 2006.
Today, IRWP has more than 230 students from roughly 40 different countries of origin and 228 volunteers. The classes are free to students, and all materials, including pencils, notebooks and books, are supplied at no charge.
IRWP volunteers teach the students more than just language skills. They are giving immigrants and refugees the joy of independence.
“One lady, she was literally the shyest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Joshu said. “She would not look up from the floor, and would only give one word answers.”
But as she worked with her teacher, the student learned English and gained confidence in herself.
“She is totally evolved to the point that when her son applied for a job at a grocery store she went up and asked for the manager and asked why he didn’t hire her son. And he hired him,” Joshu said. “For me, what we do is help them be who they want to be. That’s what she wanted to be – the mom that could stand up for her family.”
Simple tasks most of us take for granted – going to the doctor, attending a child’s parent-teacher meeting, or shopping for groceries – become daunting or even impossible without a translator if you don’t understand the language.
Thanks to a highly-visual curriculum, volunteers don’t need to be bilingual to teach students the basic English and practical living skills they need to succeed.
“If our teachers aren’t sure they’ll use dictionaries or Google translate on their phone to make sure, concept-wise, that there is an understanding,” Joshu said.
Students originate from countries all over the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Somalia, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and different countries around Africa, Europe, Central and South America.
“We still have a good number of Bosnian students, so it’s not just all people who were resettled last year,” said Sarah Paradoski, IRWP program coordinator. “It’s also people who have been here 5 to 10 years but who didn’t have access or awareness.”
Joshu said that’s been one of her goals – to get the word out about the organization to identify people who are isolated.
“Maybe they don’t have a caseworker or maybe somebody has a neighbor they want to help,” Joshu said. “We try to make connections anywhere we can.”
Whatever the individual’s specific needs or circumstances are, the staff at IRWP try to accommodate them as best they can.
One of the first students Joshu worked with when she joined IRWP was a 67-year-old blind woman from Ethiopia who needed help studying for her citizenship test.
“That was the start of making audio study guides, so that she could practice between classes that I had with her,” Joshu said. “We’re still doing that today. We let the program evolve based on the changing needs of our students and their backgrounds and teachers have had a lot of input on what works.”
The teachers are volunteers who come to IRWP through community recruitment fairs, social media, presentations and events like the Festival of Nations.
“We’ve just been very fortunate,” Paradoski said. “Our volunteers are awesome people. The issue of refugees is really on people’s minds, and people have more awareness. This is something they can do locally and personally.”
Volunteers go through orientation, and then meet with students to decide if it’s a good fit for both parties.
“We give them good options for students, go with them to meet someone, decide if it’s a good connection, and then train them specifically on the student they’re going to meet with,” Paradoski said. “It’s an ongoing process. We try to offer very personalized and deep level of support to the volunteers and the students.”
The skill levels of the students can vary greatly. Some students have never been literate in any language and don’t know any English. Some students can read English but are too afraid to try speaking it, while others can speak the language but have issues reading.
The goal is for every student to have a positive learning experience that is not overwhelming, Joshu said.
The teachers help the students set goals for themselves. For some, the goal is to get a job, while for others the goal is to pass a citizenship test or be able to interact with doctors as they care for their aging parents.
The length of time a student stays in the program depends on their goals and their starting skill level.
“We’ve had people attain enough English skills to get a job in three months,” Joshu said. “There’s a good amount of them who just get to the point where they are able to get that full-time job for the first time.”
One woman enrolled in the program because she was getting a lot of feedback in her house cleaning jobs that her English was difficult to understand. As she met her goals and improved her English, she got so much work she no longer had a need – or the time – to meet with her teacher.
A young mother was so successful with her teacher that she was able to enroll in community college when her youngest child went off to school.
Another student, a mom with two young girls, started as a stay-at-home mom. She worked hard in her classes, perfecting her English skills until she got a job at a local café.
Even after she got a job, she kept working with her teacher until she was able to land another job she’d long been dreaming of, Paradoski said.
“She put her English skills to work for her own personal goals and dreams,” Paradoski said. “Our students are really striving to be self-reliant. If they weren’t they wouldn’t make it in our program. They have to do work.”
The students who have children expect a lot of their kids in school because they too are working hard to achieve their goals.
“When they see their mom working hard to do it, there’s no excuses,” Paradoski said. “They see what their parents are accomplishing. If you want it you have to put the effort in. For a lot of our students, their children are doing well in school. It has an impact throughout the family.”
As word spreads throughout the many immigrant and refugee communities about the success of the program, more and more students find their way to IRWP, Joshu said.
“Many students are referred by other organizations in the community – Youth in Need, International Institute, Family Care Health Center,” Joshu said. “But we also have quite a few people who have gone through the program, and as new people come into their communities they pass the information on. And children of some of our students just Google ‘how to find English help for my mom.'”
When IRWP staff applied for the SOS grant funding, they anticipated 185 students and 70 new volunteers.
As of May 2017, the organization had enrolled 286 students and trained 184 new volunteers, Paradoski said.
They expected the growth, just not quite at that level, Joshu said.
Thanks to the $15,000 grant from SOS, the organization was able to keep Paradoski’s assistant, Anna, full-time and hire another assistant.
Without that additional manpower, Joshu says it would have been impossible to do the 230 one-on-one trainings with volunteers. Students are already on a waiting list that is longer than it’s ever been.
“The time students would have had to wait to get a teacher has been reduced because we’ve been able to increase our capacity,” Paradoski said.
Story by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative on behalf of Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund. Photos courtesy of the Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Fund.