The Colorado Refugee ESL program at Emily Griffith Technical College serves 2,500 students from 72 countries, speaking 94 languages. I learned this at the training for in-home tutoring volunteers.
Fifteen of us fill the class: teachers, retired teachers, students, Peace Corps veterans, a college professor. The lovely woman next to me is a retired lawyer, spent a month in Laos teaching English to Buddhist monks. Many of us have traveled or lived abroad.
“Give me teachers and retired teachers,” Sharon says, “and this program would run smooth as silk forever.” Sharon is the volunteer coordinator, leads our training and has been doing so for years. Our one man observes that he’s glad men have been allowed in the class and we all laugh. In fact, most volunteers are women. Last class had four men and it was shocking. They sat together and bonded.
You’re not a refugee until you’ve left your country, until it’s been documented that you’ve done so for fear of your life, for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or war. You’re not a refugee until you’ve registered with UNHRC, at one of their woefully under-funded refugee field offices. Then the International Organization of Migration manages your case. Immigration agencies of various countries interview you. If you’re lucky.
This takes years. Meanwhile, your life is on hold. Vetting is already extreme: less than one percent of refugees get re-settled and they have no choice about where. Those making that decision for them consider job and housing markets, and “the friendliness of the receiving community.”
Consequently, the south doesn’t get many refugees. The Atlanta area does, a few others, but nobody goes to Mississippi. Refugees are told they’ve been approved and they’re going to Houston or Detroit. They don’t know either from pita bread. They’re just happy to go somewhere they’ve heard is safe, where their children can go to school.
Getting here is not a free ride. Refugees sign a note to pay back their travel expenses: for a family of five that can be thousands. And most refugees come in families. Less than one per cent of them default on that loan.
In the first ninety days, they go through extensive medical evaluations and treatments. A doctor told Sharon, “they’re coming sicker and sicker.” Because they’re spending longer in refugee camps with little or no care, conditions that could have been easily cured have become serious problems. Refugee resettlement agencies arrange a modest apartment, a case manager and a jobs counselor. For about four months, they get cash assistance of a few hundred dollars a month to pay rent, utilities, food.
Sharon tells us about refugees in Denver: Afghan, Iraqi, Burmese, Cuban, Congolese (DRC), Ethiopian, Sudanese, Eritrean, Ukrainian, Syrian and Somali—since 1991 Somalia’s had no functioning government and the life expectancy there is 40. Those pirates are mostly teenagers.
“Afghan women are rabid for education,” Sharon says. They will ask you to come every day. Practice saying, “Sorry, I can’t.” Set boundaries. Iraqi men line up outside Sharon’s office, trying to get in-home tutors for their wives, and “it can’t be a man.” Congolese are mostly Christian and the women have a high incidence of PTSD. The wars there have killed six million.
Sharon never met a shy Somali. They are strong-willed extroverts and have built a close community here. Many come from the largest, worst refugee camp in the world, in Kenya. An entire generation has been born and raised there, in exile. Many Somali have never set foot in their country of origin. Somali women are bossy and friendly, will hug you as soon as they know you. Syrians are more conservative and often arrive terrified, afraid to leave their houses. Most Syrians who get re-settled here left home four years ago, have been in camps in Jordan or Turkey.
Iraqis are educated, middle class. Saddam Hussein required schooling. The thing about dictatorships, Sharon says, is they often produce a high level of literacy. The Iraqis will tell you about their flat screen TVs and granite countertops, how they were school administrators or engineers and now have to live in this dump and wash dishes. They need to vent. Let them. Remind them that USA means “You Start Again,” that in the USA washing dishes doesn’t mean that’s all you’ll ever do. The teachers have posters with their own career paths as examples: I was a waitress, a sales clerk and now I’m a teacher.
Focus on what will lead to independence, Sharon says. Day 1, teach them to write and recite their addresses. They come from places without addresses, don’t know numbers in English, how to say street names, what order the components go in. They’ll put Colorado first, then the city. Sharon shows us writing students did about why they came. One student wrote: to start over my life.
Normally, this program gets less than ten volunteers per month. This January, 150 applied. Applicants for in-home tutoring are usually on a wait list for months. Now volunteers may wait weeks to be assigned a student.
Obviously, I’m not the only one to respond to the election with this kind of resolve. Sharon says our refugees are scared, stressed. They’ve been through so much, hoped so long—the average wait time to be resettled is ten years. And now, in a country they thought was safe, they feel threatened. The flood of volunteers reassures them that there are Americans who welcome and want to help them. Being asked why we’ve volunteered, most of us say, “the election.”