More than English

At a Denver school, refugees learn American ways as well as language

  • Kate Goodspeed teaches English to a room full of refugees from places like Bhutan and Iraq, at Denver's Emily Griffith Opportunity School.

    Kira Horvath
  • Prayer flags hang from the ceiling of Kate Goodspeed's classroom at Denver's Emily Griffith Opportunity School, where refugees learn English and skills to help them get a job.

    Kira Horvath

See end of story for a complete package of refugee stories in this issue.

"Whap!" goes the frayed green flyswatter, and a puff of chalk dust rises from the blackboard in Kate Goodspeed's crowded classroom at Emily Griffith Opportunity School. "Bhutan" is battling "Iraq" this morning, and Bhutan just hit the word "hand" first.

"Good!" exclaims Goodspeed, once the two  men have found all 15 words from today's reading, "A Visit to the Doctor's Office." Next up are "Sudan" and "Congo," two women wrapped head to toe in flowing fabric.

On a Thursday morning in June, every seat is taken in this entry-level class for adult refugees. Goodspeed, who came to Emily Griffith from teaching English in China, has an expressive face framed by graying hair, and  a long braid hangs down her back. It's easy to see how much she loves teaching. With the help of one paid tutor and several volunteers, she talks, writes, mimes and smiles her 46 refugee students  through the basic English they will need to begin new lives here.

Seven students joined the class this week -- two Burmese, three Bhutanese and two Somalis. By Monday, five others will move up to an intermediate class. Some students will need much longer, especially if they have never learned how to read .  For these adults, the everyday act of holding a pencil, forming letters and recognizing collections of symbols as words is even more alien than  Denver's bus system, as mysterious as the abundance of choices in an American supermarket. "This is much more than an English program," says Goodspeed.

Damanta Siwakoti agrees. "I'm also learning culture, laws, rules, how to work, and how to take care of our children here," she says.  One of thousands of ethnic Nepalese expelled from Bhutan, Siwakoti joined Goodspeed's class in November 2008. She can write her name now, slowly but correctly, and she even volunteers English words to help her student translator.

"Emily Griffith is good," she says simply.

A venerable Denver institution, Emily Griffith Opportunity School has offered an "opportunity for all who wish to learn" since 1916 –– more than 1.6 million adults so far. Miss Emily Griffith, the school's redoubtable founder, took a special interest in helping immigrants, a tradition that remains strong today. The Language Learning Center opened in 1981 to teach Hmong displaced by the war in Southeast Asia, the first large group of refugees accepted into Colorado and other states after the Refugee Act of 1980. It is the state's designated center for teaching English to refugees. The school also serves 11,000 other students a year, who study subjects as various as welding, culinary arts and real estate.

These days, the building looks its age, its old brick and peeling paint in stark contrast to the shiny new convention center across the street. Adding to perennial worries about temperamental boilers are the strains caused by the record-breaking number of refugees who have come to Denver this year --  some 1,600 through June, compared to a more usual annual total of 1,200. "Denver is seen as a community that welcomes refugees," says Sharon McCreary, who teaches at the language center and manages its in-home tutoring program for refugees.  But there are larger reasons for the surge: National policy has dictated a higher ceiling this year for refugees, and there is a readier acceptance of Iraqis. At the same time, huge camps in Thailand and Bhutan have been closed to displaced Burmese and ethnic Nepalis, leading many to seek refuge in the U.S.

"Our funding has stayed the same, though, and so has our space," says Slavica Park, dean of instruction at the language center. With 11 teachers, three paid tutors, four office staff and  about 50 volunteers, the center offers morning, afternoon and evening classes for refugees. Its annual budget is $650,000.

Keeping the curriculum responsive is a challenge. In recent years refugee populations have tended to be either little educated (women from rural Somalia, for example) or highly educated (most Iraqi and Bhutanese refugees). Courses for the pre-literate and the computer-illiterate had to be added, and the advanced courses have been beefed up. One major innovation has been the "Work-Intensive Skills Camp." In this four-week course, refugees are introduced to the culture of the American workplace – the importance of being on time, wearing a uniform, using teamwork. They practice skills that can help them land entry-level jobs–– setting a table, working a cash register, cleaning a house. But even though prospective employers are pleased with the skills of the  graduates, many simply aren't hiring at the moment.

And the clock is always ticking for refugees. The language classes are free for at least four months, and the refugees  receive initial help with expenses, housing, clothing and food stamps from sponsoring agencies such as Lutheran Refugee Services. But they are expected to get jobs as soon as possible and to pay back their airfare within two years.

Dean Park knows the challenges her students face. A refugee from Bosnia, she came to Emily Griffith in 1997, scared, grieving and in deep need of healing. But first she needed to learn English and get a job. "I don't see a way out. I want to quit," she remembers thinking, only to realize, "I can't quit; I have no place to go.  I have to go forward."

"Emily Griffith was the first place I felt somewhat at home and made friends," Park says. Then, as now, it was a place to start starting over.

More refugee stories:

Refugees unsettle the West
In Greeley, Colorado, a meatpacking plant observes Muslim traditions such as Ramadan while multicultural refugees adapt to the West's very different landscape and culture.

Editor’s note: The newest Westerners
Immigrants from around the world are changing traditionally white Western communities such as Boise, Idaho.

An orphan heads to college
Chan Kuoth's journey has taken him from Sudan to Tucson, Ariz., where he hopes to help other refugees.

A hard-fought immigration victory
Valentina Kabinov's family, Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, fought for years to stay in the U.S.

Seeking a vocation in a no-man’s land
Salam Talib, who barely escaped from Iraq with his life, now seeks a new beginning in San Francisco.

A new kind of ministry
Tom Simbo, who faced down gun-toting soldiers in Sierra Leone, now works with other immigrants in Denver, Colo.

Refugees by the numbers
Placing the influx of refugees in the West in context.

“I like America”
Multimedia: A unique neighborhood north of Seattle is home to about a dozen different ethnic groups, most of them refugees. The neighborhood center is used on Sunday mornings for Russian church, on Fridays for Arabic Muslim services, on weeknights for ESL classes for Somali Bantu.

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