Wayne YMCA Helps Syrian Refugees Learn English

The Y has teamed up with North Jersey Interfaith Cares to help refugees from Syria assimilate.

June 19, 2018

Liza Abdullah fled Syria with her sons, a baby and preschooler, soon after civil war erupted in 2011, filling Aleppo's streets with soldiers, violence and destruction.

"Every night I'm crying because I'm scared for my children," Abdullah said. After a short time in Jordan, they spent three years in Turkey. Last February, a flight carrying them and five other Syrian families landed in the U.S.

"I just want a future for my sons," said Abdullah, one of 22 Syrians who gathered at the Wayne YMCA three times a week throughout the fall to learn English. An expanded version of the program began on Jan. 21 to serve up to 50 people.

The Wayne YMCA and North Jersey Interfaith Cares (NJIC) teamed up with Global Emergency Response and Assistance (GERA), a nongovernmental organization that advocates for refugees, to offer English as a second language for Arabic speakers. It is part of NJReBuild, GERA's multipronged initiative for refugees' successful resettlement through language proficiency and economic stability.

"The goal is to build their capacity to become members of their community," Wayne YMCA Executive Director Laura Tiedge said. "It's one small thing, but I hope it makes a big impact."

When they first arrived in the U.S., refugees received brief ESL training designed for Spanish speakers, but it wasn't sufficient. GERA witnessed the parents "lose so many job opportunities largely because of the language barrier," Program Coordinator Teresa Reynolds said.

"Having a program taught by an Arabic speaker gives context and allows them to ask questions in their native language," Reynolds said.

The ESL program has three levels, starting with the basics for students who have no experience with English. They learn the English alphabet, basic sight words, the days of the week, how to form simple sentences, and how to properly introduce themselves. As they advance, students learn to fluently speak, write and read in English so that they can, among other things, apply for jobs and communicate effectively in the workplace.

At a session in December, a man was reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a book recommended by his 11-year-old daughter. The man, who gave only his first name, Maher, arrived in New Jersey with his wife and five children in July 2016 after spending three years in Jordan.

"The civil war destroyed everything. There was blood in the streets, people stabbed. My children witnessed that," he said.

An electrical engineer in Syria, Maher has been unable to get work. The family lives in an apartment in Paterson, but soon their financial assistance will end. "I need to improve my English. I need to work," he said.

Supported by the YMCA and NJIC, GERA has expanding the pilot program to serve 50 people, including up to 20 teenagers, GERA Director of Education Heba AbouBakr said.

"Our curriculum has been designed to meet the practical needs of the students. That is what is so unique about this program — we don't follow a 'one-size-fits-all approach' but rather recognize that the students all have different skills, abilities, and long-term goals," AbouBakr said.

"We are seeing great strides in their learning and are continuing to modify the curriculum based on their needs as we move forward," she said. As an Arabic speaker, AbouBakr is able to clarify points of confusion for the students.

Rawia Daghestani struggled to explain to a guest how it was that she came to the U.S. seven months ago. After conferring with AbouBakr, Daghestani was able to describe how she was reunited with her family, who had been admitted four years earlier.

Daghestani left Damascus in 2012 with her parents and two siblings. After a year in Algeria, the rest of her family was allowed to join her other sister, who has lived many years in Wayne.

The only English she knew growing up was what she picked up watching American movies and television shows. "It's very good here. I've learned a lot," Daghestani said of the program. She plans to teach at a preschool.

Abdullah, who taught elementary school in Syria, said the class has helped her tremendously. She contrasted the experience with the state's ESL program, in which a teacher addressed students from the front of a room.

"This program is one-on-one. I need to speak. I need to read. Here I get to practice," said Abdullah, who lives in Haledon.

Beyond learning English, the program provides parents and their children time to socialize in a safe, welcoming environment. "They don't get involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, and this is a place for them to have fun," Reynolds said.

In the fall, as parents practiced English with volunteers from NJIC and elsewhere, YMCA volunteers oversaw activities for 15 children in the Children's Enrichment Program across the hall. Abdullah said her sons, 9-year-old Yazan and 7-year-old Nour, even get help with homework. The boys said they enjoy drawing and reading while their mom practices English.

The Wayne YMCA has hosted other events for the families, including the Y Giving Potluck Dinner in November. The Y, GERA and NJIC hosted a pre-Ramadan picnic last May attended by 125 Syrian refugees.

"It gave the adults a chance to really meet each other for the first time and share their experiences," Tiedge said.

Tiedge said the Wayne YMCA is a diverse organization committed to social justice. "It's wonderful to be able to provide that safe haven," she said.