Literacy improves refugees' chances in rustbelt cities

June 5, 2012

By Daniel Robison and Nicholas Gunner

Download Story View Transcript
(Nicholas Gunner/Front and Center)

Abdi Hussein sits in a cramped classroom full of old metal chairs that clank and scrape the faded tile floor. Here he learns English idioms like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and how to order adjectives.

This is a long way from Somalia, where Hussein struggled to find food and lived in constant fear of being dragged into the country’s ongoing civil war.

“There’s horrible things,” Hussein said. “People kill each other. That’s why we get help to get in here. People call us the refugee.”

Hussein lives in a growing Somali community in Buffalo, New York. Inexpensive housing has proven fertile ground for ethnic neighborhoods made up largely of refugees.

Immigrants have always played a central role in creating communities in the United States. And in Midwestern cities like Buffalo, they’re responsible for reinvigorating the former manufacturing towns. More than 1,000 refugees arrive in Buffalo every year.

Learning to read and write English is seen as the refugees’ best chance to contribute to their new home and become successful in America.

While at home and around friends, Hussein says he’s tempted to speak his native Somali language. But he was told learning English will help him find a job.

“English is not my language,” he said. “It’s difficult to speak and read and understand the words. But I study hard.”

During his English class, Hussein is clustered in a room with two dozen other refugees from Ghana, Iraq, Burma and Afghanistan. Most refugees are enrolled in the classes within 72 hours of arrival in Buffalo.

Teacher Nick Pruyn instructs his class to speak as a group. He says it’s the best way to make the most progress with the most students.

“Reading and writing are a secondary concern,” Pruyn said. “It kind of hurts to put them on a back burner. But if you go to another country, the first thing you need to do is speak.”

For many refugees, classrooms are a new concept. Some have never used electricity before, let alone a computer.

“We’re not looking for people to quote Shakespeare,” said Ann Brittain of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, which offers 10 levels of English classes. “We want people to know the difference between hot and cold. Slow down, go faster. (It’s about) very basic life skills and employment skills that they need.”

Amy Lawrence of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo says learning English beyond the basics hinges on constantly being pushed to improve all literacy skills, like listening, reading and writing.

She cautions there’s no surefire formula for success.

“There’s very little stuff out there on how to take someone who virtually doesn’t know any spoken language or written language and teach them everything,” Lawrence said. “That’s something we’ve had to piece together.”

And English classes don’t pay the bills. Refugees are responsible for paying for their plane tickets to the U.S., so most are immediately in debt. Lawrence says most refugees would rather spend time looking for work or earning an income than sitting in class.

“They want the jobs now,” Lawrence said. “They want the skills now. They don’t want to wait a couple of years. Many of them have families. They have to start providing right now.”

In essence, that’s also what local leaders want from refugees: to help the local economy by getting jobs and building a new tax base. Most settle for work in restaurants and hotels that don’t require fluency in English.

Government officials say refugees are also in high demand at local companies. But with Buffalo’s cheap rent and low cost of living, some opt to start their own businesses.

Luis Sano plays a carimba, a popular instrument she sells in her shop Global Villages. She has colorful baskets, handmade jewelry and painted ostrich eggs as big as footballs. Sano came to Buffalo in 2007 as a refugee. She received business training from a local non-profit, and eventually, a microloan. Her shop started as just a table among many in a flea market-like store for small refugee businesses.

“You get to be shown it’s possible,” Sano said. “The community shows us that ‘yes, you are a refugee, but that’s just a status, not a state of mind.’ It’s not like you can’t think or you cannot do this, you can. If you are told you can, you can.”

Now, with a growing customer base, Sano is expanding into a larger space. She plans to hire fellow refugees to work in the store, which she hopes will help them learn English. She’s also eager to help them write business plans and eventually, open their own shops in Buffalo.