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SALT LAKE CITY — Each year, hundreds of refugees arrive in Utah anxious to call our state home. Learning the English language is one of their first goals, but it will not be easily met. It is, however, a challenge most refugees are committed to overcoming.
A lively discussion between the teacher and a student kicks off a Monday morning English as a second language (ESL) class at the Granite Connections campus. The teacher's question is, "Why do we double the P in the middle of the word stopped?" One student entertains her classmates with this response, "Because English is weird." Laughter fills the classroom as students and their teacher heartily agree.
English is strange, confusing and frustrating, but essential for refugees building a new life in Utah. Amy Traore is a refugee from Ivory Coast and says, "In my country, I wasn't working, I was just going to school and here I have to work and go to school, so is a difference, it's not the same, and I think English is most important."
It is so important that Traore has moved quickly up the ladder of ESL classes at Granite Connections and landed a job as a cashier and cook at a fast-food restaurant. "So, I just try to do my best work and improve my English," she says.
Barween Ahmed arrived in Utah as a refugee from Iraq about a year ago and was anxious to get to know her new community.
"You go to shop, I have a nice neighbor and I need to be in a relationship with them. So, I need to speak English with them," says Ahmed.
We have a lot of students that when they get here, they are Americans and they want to learn as much as they can about this country and they want to fit in and they want to use their skills and their talents to benefit our communities.
–Michelle Dahl, coordinator at Granite Connections
"We have a lot of students that when they get here, they are Americans and they want to learn as much as they can about this country and they want to fit in and they want to use their skills and their talents to benefit our communities," says Michelle Dahl. She is a coordinator at Granite Connections working with refugee students.
At Catholic Community Services, refugee resettlement director Aden Batar and his staff know that without English, refugees won't have a chance at the American Dream. He says, "I think encouraging refugees to go to school to learn the language, you know, a lot of them do really successfully and then we see them thriving. "
Suhad Khudhair is thriving as a caseworker for CCS just five years after arriving in Utah as a refugee from Iraq. She tells her refugee clients to practice English because there's no going back. "They cannot go back, 37 hours of flying to a critical situation there, bad situation there. Because they have peace here. They have freedom here."
They have the freedom to discuss important people and issues of the day in English. Students in the highest-level class offered at Granite Connections are already discussing the 2016 presidential race. Dahl says, "We teach our classes not by cultural groups and not by first languages but we teach them by their level of education and their level of English understanding."
Climbing to the highest level of their English language education won't be easy. "The vast majority of our refugees come with no education, even in their own language. So, they're learning how to read and write for the very first time in English," says Dahl.
However, the refugee students' committment to learning the language could not be stronger. They know what is at stake. "It is the key to their successful integration into our community and also for them moving up in the ladder. Otherwise, they will always be trapped into poverty, " says Batar.
Ahmed sums up her ESL training so far saying, "I am very happy when I improve my English."
Contributing: Nyoko Iyamba