Reaching Refugees by Going Mobile

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Somali Yaseen Adan arrived in Madison after living in a refugee camp in Malta

The Tennessee Foreign Language Institute recently surveyed dozens of refugees around Nashville and asked if English classes were taught in their apartment complex, would they attend? All of them said yes. Yet free ESL classes are already offered around town, and few were enrolled. The proposed solution is a mobile classroom.

Consider getting across town to an English class if road signs were gibberish and asking for directions meant relying on hand gestures. After being relocated to Madison by the State Department, Yaseen Adan – who is from the war-torn nation of Somalia – spent his first few days cooped up. Then he ventured out of his bare apartment.

“Yes, after five days, I go to town. Towndown,” he says, laughing when asked if he means “downtown.”

Adan – who says he is “50-something” – actually has more English skills than most of the 1,000- 1,600 refugees placed in Tennessee each year. Apparently, he took classes at a refugee camp in Malta. Newcomers from places like Myanmar are learning what could be called “survival English.” Many are illiterate in their native language.

Families from Myanmar and the Kurdistan region of Iraq learn "survival English" from TFLI instructor Ashley Ekers.

Families from Myanmar and the Kurdistan region of Iraq learn “survival English” from TFLI instructor Ashley Ekers.

In the attic of an apartment complex office, instructor Ashely Ekers holds up images of men and women, like those that label public restrooms.

“Am I a man?” she asks the class, which mumbles a response.

The Tennessee Foreign Language Institute has already begun offering classes where refugees live, calling it “ESL to Go.” But organizers have been dreaming about a mobile classroom, a retrofitted RV that they could park almost anywhere. They’re still in the process of fundraising for it.

Program manager Leah Hashinger says a classroom on wheels is more than the gimmick it might sound like. She believes it could prove that transportation is the primary barrier keeping refugees from learning the language.

“We are trying to change the notion that refugees don’t want to study English,” Hashinger says. “I think that we are out to prove that they do.”

Web Extra

by Maria Ochoa Vargas

Refugee placements in Tennessee:

Through May 2012 – 438
2011 – 1,162
2010 – 1,600
2009 – 1,583
2008 – 1,012

– figures from Catholic Charities

Gatluak Thach, President and CEO of Nashville International Center for Empowerment

Sudan refugee Gatluak Thach arrived in South Dakota during a cold, snowy winter. It was not the first time he was moving around; he lived in several refugee camps after being conscripted as a child soldier in Sudan.

When he got to South Dakota with his brother, Thach spoke little English and almost no formal schooling.

Thach co-founded and now heads the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, a non-profit that teaches refugees and legal immigrants English as part of its mission. In this brief interview with WPLN, Thach talks from his experience, and the conflict between the time it takes to learn English and the need to find employment.

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