It’s a warm day in May and Jumaah Abdel-ghani, a Syrian refugee learning English with the help of volunteers at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe, is frowning as he reads a group of words in a list.
“Why,” repeats ASU student and volunteer Mia Spare. “Why . . . .” She waits for the moment of understanding when the man connects the word with the idea behind it.
That moment comes. Jumaah’s face instantly brightens as he mock frowns and points a finger at Mia. “Why! Why you no come last week?” he asks.
“I had finals!” Mia laughs, as delighted with his pretended attack as she is with his correct application of the word.
Scenes like these are common. The Islamic Community Center of Tempe is the site of a fruitful partnership between volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and volunteers from US UNITED, an ASU student-run charity dedicated to helping local refugees. Here, and at other locations in the Valley, volunteers help immigrants and refugees adapt to life in the United States.
Programs established at the Mesa Welcome Center are part of a Church initiative to aid refugees and immigrants across all cultures and faiths. Tutoring in reading and writing, cultural literacy classes and legal help are among the services provided at these centers. Services are offered free without regard to religion, nationality or race and focus on getting families to learn with one another. At the Mesa Welcome Center, adult immigrants attend reading classes while their children choose from music lessons—ukulele is a perennial favorite—arts and crafts, American Sign Language, and games.
The Islamic Community Center saw the program working in Mesa. They wanted to partner with the Church by offering reading tutoring and classes for children, but at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe Mosque, located adjacent to the ASU Tempe Campus. Several of the new volunteers at the Tempe location are fellow Muslims who work with US UNITED—many of them multilingual—and today they work side by side with LDS volunteers.
The importance of personal connections and family learning
Jumaah is working today at the Islamic Community Center with his wife, Shazah Shenea Abdel-ghani.
“She’s ahead of her husband, so we’re trying to catch him up,” says volunteer Samantha Brozak.
“I’m here three years already,” she says proudly. “Here” is the United States. Her pride is indicative of the hundreds of immigrants and refugees participating in these programs—people excited to be part of the great American story.
Today, Jumaah is struggling with differentiating the words through and throw. His wife corrects him gently and then teaches Brozak the words for “good job” in her own language. A sense of mutual respect and camaraderie pervades the study session, and it is evident that the tutors and the Abdel-ghanis are at ease with one another.
Interfaith volunteers working with refugees and immigrants focus on making these personal connections.
In another corner of the room a new volunteer, an ASU student studying molecular biology, is getting caught up in his training by LDS Church-Service Missionary Susan Whetten Udall.
“I like it. I like it a lot. I guess the takeaway message is that it’s okay to be different,” he says after she shares her philosophy of volunteering. The message about finding similarities resonates with him.
“Find a bridge of commonality that makes you comfortable with people,” Sister Udall says. “It’s important to respect each other’s differences. The power of example is so huge. Whatever you say doesn’t matter as much as what you do.”
“They’re writing after the first time they come.”
Another participant, Conde Kerfala is an immigrant from Guinea. His native tongue is French, and he had only been in the United States 3 days before he came to be tested, speaking not a word of English.
“He’s writing sentences now,” says Sister Norma Chavez, a Church-Service Missionary and Volunteer Coordinator, clearly proud of their program. “They’re writing after the first time they come.”
The basic reading manual for English language learners enables them to have a functional command of the English language after twelve weeks, she says. Reading and writing follows the very first lesson, as does a spelling test. The program teaches English literacy by using a phonetic based reading program that includes articulating, spelling, writing and comprehending English words. Tutors use sounds, but also objects, gestures and pictures to help with understanding.
“And once they master sight words, they can write,” adds Sister Chavez.
Tutors Hanna Maroofi and Kiram Tung, both ASU students, are working with Conde today.
“-Sh is shhhhh,” Kiram says, putting a finger to her lips. Conde nods and starts flipping through his flashcards again as he concentrates on differentiating phonetic sounds.
“There’s shim and sim,” Kiram says, stopping on one card. “They’re different sounds.” He directs his attention to her lips as she forms the words again.
Conde, with some effort, differentiates the two sounds and breaks into a wide grin.
Hanna affirms and Kiram claps. “Oui. Good, good!”
Tutors use a variety of methods to help their students, tailoring their pedagogy to the needs of each learner. Some pantomime. Eye contact is important. Ultimately, though, the lessons these immigrants and refugees center on two things: empowerment, and hope.
“Build someone up.”
A training session slide encourages volunteers to “build someone up, put their insecurities to sleep, remind them they’re worthy, tell them they are magical,” among other things. Ultimately, their job is to “be a light in a too-often dim world.”
And that light shines brightly. The respect, admiration and love the volunteers and students have for one another is palpable.
Jumaah, in near-perfect English, teases me as I observe the learning taking place here. “Want picture of me? 10 dollars.” He looks at his wife with obvious affection. “You want picture of my wife?” he asks, smiling. “20 dollars!” he demands. Everyone laughs.
Jumaah’s mood sums up the overwhelming success of the program. In an era of fraught political and cultural tensions, there is nothing but optimism and hope for the volunteers and tutors who work across social, cultural, and religious lines to serve one another.
Get involved: For more information on how to get involved with refugee/immigrant charities in your area, visit the Church’s Provident Living site: https://providentliving.lds.org/immigrant-services/about-us?lang=eng