Friday, December 30, 2011

With a new language, new hopes for the New Year

Best Blogger Tips
Though they’re new to the country and new to the language, clients at our Refugee Center have big plans for their first year in the States.

Several clients shared these plans with us last Thursday during the Refugee Center’s English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Our ESL Coordinator, Birhanu Alemu, leads the class each Thursday, teaching English that emphasizes workplace English.  It is a very community-oriented class, as the students encourage each other in their progress, help translate for each other, and share words from their native language to explain meaning. As newcomers to this country, the students seek a common goal: to build new, fulfilling lives for themselves in the United States.

Language, however, is a major barrier to that goal. To overcome that and other obstacles, many immigrants in the Washington, DC area turn to our Refugee Center for help with housing, employment, English classes, and more.

“Language is my biggest challenge to finding a job,” said Bizaiyhu, one of the students in the class. Bizaiyhu, her husband, and her baby son came to the United States from Israel under political asylum. She had worked as a nurse there, and now hopes to improve her English so that she can continue her career here.

Many immigrants leave much behind them when they come to the United States: their family, their home, their livelihood, and rebuilding their lives can be a slow process. But once they can speak English competently, they can secure better jobs, communicate with more people, and feel more like a part of the American culture, while of course retaining their unique heritages.

This will be the first American New Year for Bizaiyhu and her family, as they arrived in the country just four months ago. She said that in Israel, they observed the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, each September.

“We have special treats to celebrate: apples with honey, because you hope the new year will be sweet like honey, and the head of a fish, because you want to be like the head – on top!” Bizaiyhu said.

As a former refugee, originally from Ethiopia, Birhanu understands the special challenges each of his students are facing. He shared his own memories of Ethiopia’s celebrations, along with Almaz, a new refugee from Ethiopia.  Together, they described Ethiopian New Year’s customs. The holiday is very special there, because it’s one the whole country celebrates, unlike others that are religiously based. People serve special food and drinks for the holiday, and often visit family and give presents to loved ones.

Similar to the United States’ practice of making resolutions, Ethiopians set objectives to reach in the New Year. “The government there encourages people to think greater and do greater in the new year,” Birhanu explained.

How does the ESL class plan to “think greater and do greater” in 2012? Most hope to find jobs and to continue to improve their English. One member of the class, Bijan, has a very particular goal that the ESL class is helping him achieve. An Iranian journalist who was granted political asylum, Bijan turned to the Refugee Center for help in obtaining his social security card, food stamps, and a work permit. 

Now, he is a regular attendee at the ESL class so he can continue his journalism career for English-language media. He writes in Farsi for several online and print news sources, and his journalism has been translated for the New York Times and Washington Post. But he’d like to be able to write in and/or translate to English for himself.

It’s a big dream, but one he feels confident about meeting with the help of Birhanu and the support of the class. Though they hail from different countries and approach the class at different competency levels, they are all working to set achievable goals and better their lives in America.

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, I think that’s a pretty good one. Don’t you?

Want to help newcomers to the United States achieve their goals in 2012? 

Volunteer: Volunteers are welcome to assist with job club, resume building, and community connections. Get more information here.
Donate: Only with the support of the community can we be there for refugees coming to our region. Make a donation directly to the Refugee Center here. 

Read on!