This is just a simple followup to the entry I posted a couple days ago about World Relief’s ESL classes being in jeopardy. A few minutes ago I wrote a simple letter to the Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner, through the illinois.gov website. If you, too, are an Illinois citizen and would consider doing the same, click on the link above to go directly to the contact page. Then, after filling in your personal information, you can copy and paste all or a portion of the letter below into the comment section. It will take you all of 2 minutes, tops!
Dear Governor Rauner, I am writing on behalf of World Relief DuPage, an organization that serves refugees and immigrants in the DuPage county area. I am asking you to approve the release of federal funds that support Adult Education. I am also asking you to pass a compassionate state budget that keeps in focus the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities, including immigrants and refugees. Thank you for your consideration.
Two weeks ago I walked into the Job class of World Relief’s ESL program and was immediately asked a question. “Hi Jen, we’re listing all the different ways people in our class say good morning in their languages. Can you add one?” I looked at the board. “Good Morning” was written there in English, Arabic, Burmese, Nepali, and Massalit.
“Buenos dias!” I said, and the teacher added the Spanish greeting to the list.
Four mornings a week, refugees and immigrants from all over the world gather for ESL classes in the basement of College Church in Wheaton, IL. Their preschool-aged children attend language enrichment classes while their parents study.
During break times a beautiful mix of different languages can be heard in the hallways. Refugees from Asian countries converse in halting English with Africans and Middle Easterners. The older women often huddle together, their clothing carrying the wonderful scents of cooking spices. News of babies born and jobs found is shared. Individual rejoicings turn into communal celebrations. When someone grieves, the others say little but their eyes speak a language of shared suffering.
I LOVE this place. I love what it stands for–a church that is giving of its space to those who need it and an organization, World Relief, that serves the most vulnerable. The teachers at World Relief are some of my heroes.
The students are my heroes.
They face odds I cannot imagine, and they do it with quiet bravery.
These basement classrooms are a sanctuary for them. They find and form community here. They meet Americans who welcome them to their new country, who tell them, “This can be your home. You are safe here.” Their children are nurtured and cared for.
These ESL classes are in jeopardy. Because the state of Illinois has not passed a budget, World Relief has had to operate its ESL classes since July without the federal and state funds it should have received. World Relief cannot continue this indefinitely, and plans are being made to cut the semester short and scale down the classes offered in the future.
If you are a reader in the DuPage area, please visit this link to World Relief DuPage’s Advocacy page and read more about this issue and action steps you can take. Pass it along to anyone else you know who might be interested.
And please pray.
Almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and destitute, the old and the sick, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. from The Book of Common Prayer
They murmur, “Thank you,” as they leave the classroom. But instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” I tell them, “Thank you,” back.
I mean it. They have given me far more than I have given them.
Mondays I serve as an aide at the local World Relief ESL program, supporting Krista, who teaches the Job Class. The refugees in her class are recently arrived (some as “recently” as a week ago) and have only six weeks of preparation before joining the American workforce. Job Class, therefore, doesn’t mess with non-essentials.
Today we are learning the “doctor appointment” conversation:
A: This is Dr. ________’s office. How can I help you?
B. I need to make an appointment. My ________ hurts.
A. I’m sorry. How about _________ at ____:_____?
B. _______ at ____:_____? Yes. Thank you.
A. See you soon.
B. See you.
I teach the dialogue to the majority of the class while Krista works on travel directions with three students who’ve already learned the conversation. Then she and I switch groups. As Krista leads the large group in a fun practice session, I show the small group how to use Google Maps. I zoom in on the map of the world until northern Illinois covers the entire screen. “Where would you like to go?” I ask them. “The grocery? I can show you how to get directions from your apartment to the closest store.”
One of the women—she’s a “take-charge” gal!—has a different idea. She pulls a flyer out of her folder. “Free Computer and Literacy Classes,” it boldly proclaims. She reads the address to me. I type in her apartment address as the starting point and the other as the end point. “Do you have a car?” I ask her. She shakes her head. The two others, who live in the same apartment building as she, shake theirs, too.
I switch the default icon from “car” to “pedestrian,” and the time jumps from six minutes to forty. They laugh.
Soon it is time to work on applications. We fill out applications galore in this class—since, after all, getting hired is the ultimate point. The app they start with has two blanks: one for “name,” one for “country.” It simply determines if they can actually recognize those words. The final one, number 12, is a standard three-page application, with blanks for items like their social security number, their full address (including zip code), and work history.
Job counselors at World Relief help each refugee create a résumé. We use these to fill in addresses and former jobs on the application templates. I help a gentleman write “Family farmer” in the blank for his earliest job and then, in the space for his latest, we write “Kitchen worker,” the job he was able to get when he had to flee home and find temporary shelter in a neighboring country. It is the same for nearly all the refugees from his home. They began as farmers and now live far, far from their land.
I explain to another man that he does not have a maiden name, but his wife does—or perhaps not—names are cultural things, after all.
Back and forth they come and go from the table where I have organized all the applications. “Excuse me, I need help.” “Excuse me, I am finished.” I check their work. I remind some that Americans write on top of the blank line rather than across the middle of it. I refer to their intake sheets to check birthdates—months and days can be tricky. One man and I have the same birth year. We smile at each other with the commonality of age. Another man has circled “yes” next to “children?” and “no” next to “married?” Beneath the “no,” he has penciled in “widow.” I do not change it to “widower.” Should I have? Surely no one will point that out to him.
I find myself noticing their shoes—actually, their socks. It’s been a cold winter, and Monday after Monday I’ve shivered when I noticed women in plastic slides—no socks—and men in dress shoes—no socks. It’s not that World Relief doesn’t provide them with socks. They have them, but many come from homelands where they never before had to wear anything but sandals on their feet.
It must feel strange.
This day, though, I see lots of socks, and, oddly, it makes me glad.
Near the end of class, Krista assigns the homework. A few still linger at my table, wanting me to check their corrections, wanting—ultimately—to learn, to understand, to “make it” in this new, strange country.
Please, God, smooth their paths, I pray. They’ve already traveled such hard, treacherous roads. Bring kind people to them when they need aid. Protect them from prejudice and hate. Let them meet You in gentle eyes, in helping hands, in mouths that share Your Name gracefully, truthfully.
I slide the blank applications into the correct folders, ready for another day of practice, and leave with a strange mix of sorrow and joy and great gratitude.
“Thank you,” I say again to a few who are still waiting in the vestibule for their ride to arrive.