Day 3. I had no idea what to expect driving up to the Refugee Empowerment Program since I had never interacted with refugees before. My experience tonight was different from the
previous two odysseys because I was able to directly interact with the members of the program. After I walked through the door, I was immediately surrounded by a ton of loud and talkative children and teenagers, both participants and volunteers alike. I was very impressed to learn that hundreds of people volunteer with REP each year! Soon enough, I was sent upstairs to the Level I Adult ESL night class. Because of the rain and evening time, there were only three refugees in attendance, but I felt that was a great number because it gave the volunteers more time with each student. The small, carpeted classroom was decorated similarly to a kindergarten class with brightly animated posters of the alphabet, shapes, and colors. It wasn’t until I saw the simple worksheet explaining the letter “J” did I realize that these people did not have even a basic understanding of the English language. They came to a foreign country seeking asylum without knowing the native dialect and my heart immediately went out to them. I imagined myself moving to a country with a foreign language and not being able to effectively communicate with the locals. It would be extremely frustrating to say the very least.
When the class started, we each stood up and stated our names and countries of origin. We then reviewed the sounds of 20 previously learned alphabet letters and tried to think of words that started with each letter. That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t like my high school French class at all. I was taught French in my native language, while the participants in this class are being taught in the same language they are trying to learn! It was fun at times to see how explaining the meanings of words turned into a game of charades. (As we get older, our education absorption slows down and we may lose vital learning tools such as our hearing.) I was so impressed and proud of how determined these three people were to obtain a solid grasp of English.
We also studied the most commonly used colors and shapes such as “red” and “triangle.” Do you remember drawing a heart for the first time? I was able to witness that tonight. My favorite part of the class was the one on one tutoring session. There were three volunteers in attendance so we were able to personally work with each student to teach them how to read words starting with the letter “J”. I had previously taught at the collegiate level, but this experience was completely different. I felt so privileged to help my partner read “Jack and Jen jump and jog.” After finishing a few more sentences, she portrayed a sense of accomplishment by smiling victoriously and I was so happy to be able to share that with her.
In 2002, a Sudanese refugee realized that other refugees in her community were having similar struggles as she was adjusting to American culture, so she decided to take matters into her own hands by starting a program to help 12 refugee children finish their homework. The program soon became the Refugee Empowerment Program (REP) and has helped more
than 400 refugees of diverse backgrounds and nationalities of all ages become better acclimated to the United States of America. After evaluating the needs and concerns of the participants, REP offers them three outstanding programs, beginning with an after-school program that helps tutor students in any areas they may be struggling and also offers computer and internet access. The Summer Enrichment Program sharpens students’ math and English skills for eight weeks during the summer while school is out. Lastly, REP offers adult ESL classes twice daily, four times a week. There are three different levels for the English language course and also a pre-GED course is offered. In 2007, REP also became part of the Memphis Leadership Foundation and now offers leadership programs as well.
After volunteering at REP, I realized how much I take for granted in life. Being surrounded by people who were starting over from scratch much later in their lives, I can’t help but feel a mix of emotions from sadness to inspiration and hope. These people are so amazing, and even though we are teaching them the elemental aspects of our language, we can all definitely learn a thing or two from them. To learn more about the Refugee Empowerment Program, visit www.repmemphis.org. Stay tuned for Day 4!
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