Imagine coming to this country and not knowing how to speak the language. More than 7,800 refugees came to Texas during the 2016 fiscal year, and many of them didn’t know English.
Advocates say learning it quickly can help newcomers transition to living in the U.S. more easily, especially at a time when resettling refugees here has become a hot-button political issue.
It’s Saturday and about a dozen adults in a nondescript East Dallas office building are powering up new laptops.
“Hello,” says a tall, dark-haired young man.
“Hello,” the adults say to him.
“My name is Kovan and this is Thomas and we’re here to help you with your computers.”
The devices are gifts from students at Southern Methodist University.
“This right here is your new computer. All of you. It is called a laptop.”
The adults in the classroom are new to Dallas and the country. They came here with the help of the International Rescue Committee, which resettles refugees in the U.S.
They’re from Congo, Burma, Iran and Eritrea, and they speak little or no English. Some have been in the U.S. a little more than a month.
With the help of an interpreter and SMU volunteers, they’re learning how to use their new laptops and a software program that will teach them to speak English.
Advocates say learning the language is crucial to refugees’ future success.
“There’s always a need to learn English and to learn how to use a computer because people are trying to apply for jobs,” SMU senior Anna Landreneau says. “People are trying to integrate into the community. ESL is always a need.”
Landreneau and her peers are doing this as part of a class project to work with a nonprofit. The laptops were donated by the owner of Forerunner Recycling in Dallas and the rest of the material was covered by grants.
The business major she thinks their effort is especially important, given the controversies surrounding refugees brought up by the recent presidential election.
“I think regardless of who you speak to, people are going to agree — like if a family is struggling, they need to be helped,” Landreneau says. “That’s black and white. It doesn’t matter what your stance is on the immigration issue.”
Current rhetoric and attitudes towards refugees aside, they struggle because of a lack of education. A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute found that less than 30 percent of refugees had finished high school. And most come to the U.S. knowing little or no English.
Alex Laywell is a volunteer coordinator at the International Rescue Committee.
“While there are many nonprofits that do ESL classes, the reality is that not everyone is able to make it to those and that there are barriers that prevent our clients from going to these crucial classes,” Laywell says.
The student project lets refugees take their new computers home. There, they can practice learning English at their own pace and with other family members.
Laywell says the sooner parents can learn English, the better it is for their children.
“One of the things I find from personal experience and, I think most people would agree, is that kids learn a lot faster,” Laywell says. “And unfortunately, that kind of turns the parent-child relationship upside down and can cause a lot of strain on a family.”
Volunteers lead refugees through an exercise on the language software. A voice speaks and Hesam Abdinia and his wife try to repeat what they hear.
“The woman are reading. The girl is reading…”
Abdinia says he and his family arrived from Iran a month ago. He knows a few words in English and says he used to have a laptop, but it broke.
“Today we are so happy. We come here and now we have a laptop,” says Abdinia. “We learning English and now we can connect people. We can chat. We can use a lot of things from laptop.”
For SMU student Kovan Barzani, who’s teaching the class, all of this brings back memories. Both of his parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan. He says his father learned English waiting tables at TGI Fridays.
“Back then, there wasn’t any software so he had to brute force his way through English,” he says.
Barzani’s grateful to be able to give these refugees technology, which he says he’s seen help his father.
“And even now, like through the invention of texting and whatnot, his English has exponentially gotten better,” Barzani says. “But there’s so many barriers that exist for language development and getting those resources to people quickly, especially right when they get here, will help them so much as they go through.”
As the class wraps up, Barzani’s professor, Karin Quiñones, walks around checking on participants. While refugees learn to operate the software, her students are learning practical ways to empower those in need, regardless of politics.
“I think it’s nice to have this sort of ray of sunshine in the middle of a time when it is a little bit more confusing for what opinions are about refugees and to see them doing something that really helps,” Quiñones says.
Both groups are learning lessons they can use every day.