Local partnership offers free English lessons to Afghan refugees

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) – Afghan refugees who stayed at the Massanetta Springs Conference Center had the chance to improve their English, thanks to a partnership between Church World Services, Eastern Mennonite University and the Massanutten Technical Center.

Since the fall, around 200 Afghan refugees have stayed at the center at one time or another, and the English language learning program has helped them adjust to their new home.

“It was really exciting. It’s nice to feel that we are making a difference with some people who are passing through this area and hopefully staying in this area, and just trying to help them build a base in terms of language and knowing our culture so that they can succeed,” said EMU English teacher Melissa May.

Church World Services Harrisonburg offers English language learning programs and other classes to all of the refugees it serves, but when the Afghan refugees arrived in Massanetta Springs, it became clear that transportation would be an issue, so CWS contacted EMU and MTC to bring the classes to the refugees.

“It’s really great to see how everyone, all of our teachers, CWS, EMU, has coordinated to provide urgent service, it’s an immediate need,” said Jeremy Samesoe, program director of EMU Intensive English.

CWS said the program has been a big help for refugees as they find jobs and begin adjusting to their new life in the United States.

“A lot of people, once they’ve reached their language goals, get a driver’s license, express interest in starting a business or going back to school,” said Emily Bender, development and communications coordinator for CWS Harrisonburg.

Instructors said one obstacle was the weather. Refugees staying at the facility can be resettled at any time.

“Sometimes we will see them for a few weeks. A few we’ve seen them for a few months, but for the most part they roll over pretty regularly when relocated,” Melissa May said.

The refugees also all come into the classroom with varying levels of English language proficiency.

“Most of them have a very basic understanding of English, or they’re beginner level because of the work they did with the military in Afghanistan,” May said. “We work with as little as getting their ABCs and 123s to a more conversational level, and how you say things in present and past tense.”

EMU and MTC each offer two two-hour classes per week in classrooms located in Massanetta Springs. CWS also offers other types of courses for refugees.

“Our staff rotates to offer different cultural orientation classes like health, employment, housing, etc,” said Emily Bender.

May says she is grateful to have the opportunity to help refugees and connect with them as they adjust to their new lives.

“Young women happen to gravitate around me and our other teacher Maria, so it was wonderful to feel like a mentor to them and to hope for their success in the public school system wherever they are resettled and to see them grow in confidence and optimism about their new life here,” she said.

The CWS said the refugees are grateful for the support the community has given them over the past few months.

“We are definitely seeing people working very hard to become contributing members of this community that has really stepped up and welcomed them so warmly,” Emily Bender said.

There are currently approximately 50 refugees still staying in Massanetta Springs.

The CWS says that for anyone who wants to get involved, they have a mentorship program for high school-aged refugee youth to meet with community members about once a month.

You can follow CWS and their work with Afghan refugees here.

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