ELL Course for Congolese Refugees

Congolese Refugees Receive Flexible English Language Learning Class

Written By: Alyssa Kurtz

When families journey across countries (or seas!) seeking refuge, they most often do so because they have no other choice. These families are often seeking asylum from tumultuous situations and looking for a better opportunity for their family. According to the Tennesseean, more than half of the refugees that resettle in Tennessee reside in Nashville, with the largest numbers arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. With several members of our community devoting years studying the language and culture of East Africa, we’ve quickly bonded with a pocket of Congolese refugees.

While these families are generally identified as Congolese refugees, many are originally from Rwanda and Burundi. Political and ethnic conflicts followed them to the Congo and forced them to relocate to refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the civil war in Congo are the major driving force behind the continuous influx of refugees and immigrants from this part of Africa.

John Nyago moved to Nashville from Uganda in 2008. His knowledge and experience has been invaluable to aiding refugees as they make the transition to a foreign culture and language.

John Nyago moved to Nashville from Uganda in 2008. His knowledge and experience has been invaluable to aiding refugees as they make the transition to a foreign culture and language.

John Nyago, liaison for G.O.D.’s Immigrant and Refugee Program, became aware of the need for an English class after meeting and working with Pastor Joseph Rukesha and his congregation in Antioch. John says that most of the refugees at the church are fluent in at least 3 languages, among them Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, French, Lingala and other local dialects. They are strong families who have endured so much, and are working hard, again, to learn another language and culture. Their integration and quality of life depends on it.

At the end of March, we began our first 8-week cycle of English classes for this group. This class consists of 15-20 students, all of whom have moved to the United States within the last four months, made up of students aged 12 to 60! Our youngest student, Josue (12), communicated this is his third country of residence, and English is his fourth language. He is learning English quickly and he is beginning to translate for his parents and grandparents, a common story.

Alyssa shows the grocery list of items that students were given to identify and locate during a trip to a local grocery store. This activity challenged students to put into practice the skills they had been learning over the past eight weeks!

Alyssa shows the grocery list of items that students were given to identify and locate during a trip to a local grocery store. This activity challenged students to put into practice the skills they had been learning over the past eight weeks!

Initially, we had arranged to teach their English class on a Thursday evening, thinking it would be convenient for them to attend after work. We learned that the opposite was true. As the first class concluded, an older gentleman named Manasse, humbly raised his hand to speak on behalf of the group. He kindly told us that evenings would not work as the majority of them had found night jobs. The class then deliberated and came to the conclusion that the best time for everyone to meet would be Saturday mornings at 7am (a far less ideal time for our team of mostly mothers). Yet, we determined we would adjust. What was the point of the class if a number of students couldn’t make it? This class was supposed to be a service to our new  neighbors, rooted in a conviction that they deserve dignity, respect and refuge in this hostile world. It’s time for their voices to be heard, starting the first night.

This was our first impression. When they spoke, we listened and received their input. This type of dialogue is essential to adult learning and it has shaped both class content and the class structure. The first few classes naturally lead into times of dialogue where students voiced their needs and concerns. Facilitators then adjusted the curriculum to meet the needs of participants, and the real life scenarios they were having to navigate.

Teaching topics have been practical and have ranged from basic introductions and hand shaking to learning to navigate a grocery store and utilizing money. Cultural considerations have been included in each lesson as well, so the families are less likely to be misunderstood or taken advantage of in these vulnerable moments of transition. Having John’s knowledge of both American culture and Ugandan culture has enabled us to consider relevant cultural considerations.

Students practiced the English they had learned to go through the checkout process at a local grocery store with confidence.

Students practiced the English they had learned to go through the checkout process at a local grocery store with confidence.

Language learning is complex. Going into this class, hospitality and flexibility were at the forefront of our minds. We knew that these families had already endured many hardships getting here, and wanted them to now find rest and support on this side. This is our responsibility as the people of God and an active response to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” For the teachers this is more than just a class; it’s an opportunity to create a positive and welcoming first impression for our Congolese brothers and sisters. This first encounter had to be a positive one, as it would shape their identity, self-esteem, and confidence going forward. Adult education can be a dignifying experience if we allow our participants’ real needs to drive the direction of their own learning. It’s our great privilege to do so.