Tutoring services help refugees learn English, life skills


Various Salt Lake City organizations are providing mentoring and tutoring services to the state’s growing refugee community.

The English Skills Learning (ESL) Center in Salt Lake City provides English classes for refugees and immigrants at the LDS Humanitarian Center. Their courses include citizenship preparation, basic life skills ESL, empowering parents and other job skills training classes. Volunteers are placed to help in these programs based on their interests and on the needs of the programs.

Syntish (holding flowers) celebrates becoming a citizen of the US with her family, friends and two mentors Annette and Tad Morley. The Morleys have been mentoring Syntish’s family since coming to Utah from the Central African Republic as refugees. (Annette Morley)

“We’ve had such an uptick in volunteer interest that we are able to create new opportunities for volunteers,” said ESL Center volunteer coordinator Jessica Hercules. “We always have something for people to do.”

In order to assist in one of these programs, volunteers must fill out an online application and undergo a four-session training course on how to teach adults, what to consider when working with immigrants and refugees, some possible activity ideas and how to manage problems that arise during class.

These sessions occur about every other month. Once a volunteer goes through the training and a background check, they will be assigned to work at a specific location in Salt Lake County.

Through the Basic Life Skills English course, volunteers teach refugees and immigrants vocabulary and communication to navigate everyday life: getting through the grocery store, making doctors appointments and reading bus schedules.

Jayne Preciado, a linguistics major and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) minor at BYU, just completed her training with the ESL Center and assisted in teaching some classes.

“It was kind of scary at first because I’m just 24 years old and these people are all adults and they have way more life experience,” Preciado said. “I’m just a little kid who’s like ‘OK, we’re going to learn English together.'”

She explained that in order to teach basic English skills, they had to begin with the basics of teaching the letters and sounds. She’ll soon be teaching her own class as a solo teacher.

“They are so nice, and they are just so excited to learn, and everyone’s just got a big smile on their face, so they make it easy,” Preciado said.

Rory Bluth, another volunteer at the ESL Center teaches a 2-hour English class to immigrants and refugees each Saturday. She loves that the ESL Center program focuses on helping families.

One of her favorite experiences was teaching a Pakistani woman in her 70s who had never attended school. Bluth noticed this woman was struggling to keep up, so Bluth found materials to help the woman identify letters. The woman’s husband was also in the class, but he had a little more experience with schooling. At one point, Bluth had the two play a memory game with letters.

“She schooled him because I had her practice before. To see her get excited about beating her equally-old husband was really great,” Bluth said.

Tutoring and mentoring programs provide people with the chance to interact with those they usually wouldn’t interact with (Refugee and Immigrant Center-Asian Association of Utah )

The Refugee and Immigrant Center at the Asian Association of Utah is another organization in Salt Lake that provides tutoring and mentoring programs for refugees.

Former Refugee and Immigrant Center volunteer coordinator Anthony Roberts said his job was to pair refugee youth with mentors to help kids keep up their English over the summer. He also paired mentors with refugee families to learn English, read mail and research for the citizenship test.

The Refugee and Immigrant Center also provides English classes for refugees through volunteer teachers. The long-term goals of the programs are integration, an increase in income and a better education and livelihood. Tutoring and mentoring programs are the most effective ways for a community to help refugees, according to Roberts.

“Stuff is useful for about five seconds, and then when it’s gone, it’s done. Or we can give people furniture for free, and it’s good, they have a couch, but that guy still doesn’t speak English; doesn’t have any American friends,” Roberts said.

One volunteer with the Refugee and Immigrant Center has been teaching an Iraqi woman and her son English for a year now. She’s been invited on their family vacations and to summer dinners and has helped the son with his homework.

“(The Iraqi woman) now has Snapchat, she’s gone to some Zumba classes at the gym, and (she) feels like (the volunteer) is . . . like her daughter now,” Roberts said.

Roberts said while making hygiene kits and donating various items is thoughtful, reaching out in a personal way makes more of a difference.

“They need people to come teach them and be their friend more than they need free things,” Roberts said.

Salt Lake County is the area with the highest concentration of resettled refugees in Utah. Other programs that volunteers can get involved in include the Hser Ner Moo Community and Welcome Center, the International Rescue Committee and Because He First Loved Us.

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