After fleeing their homelands, refugees overcome cultural challenges and learn English with support from Interfaith Action of Central Texas.
By Sarah Holcomb, Photos courtesy of Sarah Holcomb and iACT
On a typical Thursday morning, lively conversation begins to swell within Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church. More than 15 languages echo throughout the old stone building as refugees from throughout the world take a mid-morning break from English as a second language classes. They flow out of classrooms and into hallways lined with strollers.
Women sip tea as they chat on sofas scattered throughout the church. Most came from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Bhutan or Burma. All have escaped war, persecution, violence or disaster.
Accustomed to communities where extended families live in close proximity, refugees often experience extreme isolation upon entering the U.S., according to Interfaith Action of Central Texas Program Director Lu Zeidan, who coordinates the ESL classes.
Hortence Kabaya, a refugee woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo now employed as a child-care worker at iACT, describes her family’s adjustment to America as very difficult.
“In my country, you open your door and everyone is outside. You can tell them your problem,” Kabaya explains. “[As a refugee] here, you open your door and nobody is outside. … You never know your neighbor, live by yourself and stay inside unless someone comes to see you.”
Three weeks after arriving in Austin in 2010, a refugee-resettlement agency suggested Kabaya and her husband attend iACT’s three-hour ESL classes, held Monday through Thursday each week, where Kabaya met other women in similar situations.
“We found when [refugees]did start coming to English classes, they found a community,” Zeidan says.
More than 700 refugees now attend iACT’s classes, forming the largest gathering of refugees in Austin.
Refugees wait years, sometimes as many as 10 or 15, to be approved for resettlement, according to Refugee Council USA. This year, the U.S. is resettling 50,000 of 22.5 million refugees worldwide.
Once in the U.S., refugees embark on another lengthy process: adjusting to American culture and finding ways to support their families.
“While husbands are struggling with learning how to work and function as a breadwinner, the women are left to figure out the American culture, the bus system, child rearing, schooling and, of course, the English language,” Zeidan says.
Although she knows four languages, Kabaya, a mother of seven, spoke no English when she arrived in Austin. She remembers constantly asking strangers for help and receiving responses like “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” and trying, unsuccessfully, to find a ride to the nearest grocery store.
Austin-area resettlement agencies step in to assist refugees, teaching them about the bus system, store locations and how to obtain a social-security card. Then they locate jobs for refugees, typically in hotels, restaurants, senior-living centers, cleaning companies and in housekeeping positions.
While all adult refugees, except mothers who would need to pay for expensive child care, must begin working within three months of arriving, Zeidan estimates learning English requires more than a year of classes and practice. After attending classes, some refugee women work at iACT as interpreters or nursery staff and later gain employment elsewhere.
Zeidan estimates between 20 to 30 percent of iACT’s students already know some English. Refugees with previous English experience and more education may secure higher-paying jobs, but to obtain them, they must first improve their English, complete additional training or return to school.
Roaa, a thirty-year-old from Iraq, arrived in Austin three months ago with her mother and sister. (She did not disclose her full name for privacy reasons). In Iraq, Roaa earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and worked as a government employee and hopes to eventually have a similar job in Austin.
“I’m going to try to go to university and get my certification,” she says. “I’m not sure [about]the process, but I’ll try to find a job.”
For the Kids
For young mothers accustomed to children constantly tugging at their skirts, iACT’s classes provide a rare respite.
Seated between two friends on a bench, a cup of tea in hand, Nadia Stanekzai, a refugee from Afghanistan, says she spends most of her time at home, caring for her four children while managing the housework, cleaning and cooking. Stanekzai’s three oldest children, ages 9, 8 and 6, recently attended a field trip to the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum through iACT’s seven-week summer-education program, iLearn, while their 2-year-old brother stayed under the watchful eyes of nursery volunteers.
While iLearn has served an average of 50 kids in previous summers, this year, 144 kids have participated in its academic and language-learning activities, sometimes as many as 90 kids at once. Teachers also educate the students about cultural and classroom norms.
Because refugees cannot afford summer camps, which may be cost $100-200 per child, “there’s a need,” Zeidan says.
Children who are refugees face unique challenges, often arriving in Austin with little prior education due to the turmoil and violence afflicting their homelands. Children from Iraq risked car bombs or school shootings to attend school, while refugees from Syria were forced to stay in school buildings as they escaped from one city to another, forcing classes to be canceled indefinitely. Some teachers fled.
Even for students coming from refugee camps, comparatively stable environments, school attendance was not mandatory, Zeidan says. She recalls working with two Sudanese girls ages 17 and 18 who arrived in Austin with four years of total schooling in refugee camps. Terrified of the frequent abduction and rape within the camp, their father did not allow his four daughters to walk to school alone. They could only go to school when their dad could walk them. On days he needed to work in a nearby city, the sisters missed school.
Relating to Refugees
Zeidan can understand some of the fears and trauma refugees face, as she’s experienced them herself. A native
Arabic speaker of Lebanese origin, Zeidan was born in Texas but moved to Lebanon at age 6, later attending college there. She returned with her Lebanese husband to teach in the 1980s during the country’s civil war.
Despite 18 years of war and violence, the large international private school where Zeidan taught continued classes. Zeidan remembers routinely dealing with dangers, releasing students early after finding out about a shooting and searching for routes free of snipers so her students could get home safely. Once, Zeidan spotted someone out of an office window sniping at the schoolyard from the next town up. Another time, a missile exploded in the basketball field outside her class window. Zeidan says although she learned how to be calm under terrifying circumstances, “it’s a very artificial situation to live under.”
“It could happen for years and years and years,” she explains. “And that’s the situation with all the refugees. You think this is going to be for a few months, this is going to be for a year. But then you find out that for 10 years, you’re living that way.”
Zeidan considers her experiences in Lebanon an important part of who she is in relation to refugees. “I can empathize immediately with that look of doubt, [that]look of fear,” she says.
Healing and Hardship
When refugees first arrive in American cities, they often experience euphoria, relieved to see no visible signs of danger in the streets, Zeidan says. Yet within one or two months, post-traumatic stress disorder can set in.
As a policy, the iACT staff never asks to hear a refugee’s personal story, a narrative men and women have already recited dozens of times to officials throughout the resettlement process.
“It’s very important to just give people space and accept that the healing process for each person is different,” Zeidan stresses.
For years, Zeidan experienced nightmares as door-to-door massacres took place throughout Lebanon, frightened by every knock on her door. After moving into her mother’s West Virginia home in 1984, Zeidan awoke each morning to the neighbor’s garage door opening, a sound that reminded her of a Russian missile about to descend. She routinely dropped off her bed and hit the ground, heart pounding.
“Your unconscious is very much in control for years,” she explains.
Today, she observes similar trauma in many students. iACT encourages refugees to seek counseling with the Center for Survivors of Torture. Yet because counseling carries a stigma in many countries, the suggestion is often met with resistance.“If [they are not open to counseling], just listening is important. And respecting that experience,” Zeidan says.
iACT classes seem to provide refugees a place to focus on the present, on new and familiar faces and animated conversations.
A New Community
The last day of iACT’s summer program, parents packed into the church’s basement, snapping photos on their phones while volunteers handed out certificates and gift bags to each student to commemorate their graduation. After distributing the awards amid constant clapping, chatter and chaos, smiling volunteers dished out cheese pizza and cake.
“We look at it as a privilege of serving refugees who newly arrive,” explains Simone Talma Flowers, executive director of iACT. “They are coming with all this rich culture, rich background to start a new life here. … They actually add a lot to our community.”
Yet refugees also desire to serve. “One of their frustrations is “how can I help?” Zeidan says. Refugees have offered to cook for program events or to buy food for the entire group, even if they can’t afford the expense.
Amidst the graduation celebration, Hiba Adil stands with her eight-year-old curly-haired twin boys, who wave certificates in the air. A year ago, she moved with husband and four children to Texas from Iraq. Austin is “a nice place,” she says, “[with]all different people and all kinds of races.”
Adil’s twenty-two-year-old friend — who wished to remain anonymous for privacy — appreciates Austin’s tree-filled landscape, a contrast to the topography of her home in Iraq. Yet she misses the support of her friends and family at home— “just being active with people, talking to the neighbors.” iACT has provided a new community, she says.
“It takes a lot to adapt to a new culture,” Flowers explains. “Even though they have to go through so many obstacles, they cope and just [keep]that hope alive. … I’m always [awed]by their determination.”