Refugees connect with “TalkTime”

It’s 5pm on Wednesday and faces start to appear on the computer screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased social isolation for almost everyone, so Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) has moved ESL classes online. Since February 2021, a group of volunteers and ESL teachers have launched a new weekly online conversation circle called “Talk Time”. It gives refugee-students—many of whom are home much of the day—a chance to gather, learn, and be part of a community, albeit online.

As a dozen English-language-learners wave and greet each other, snippets of background conversation can be heard in Somali, Burmese, Arabic, Amharic, along with the occasional gurgle of babies or shouts from toddlers. Most of the attendees are women. Many of them are mothers.

Volunteers Lead Conversation

One TalkTime volunteer facilitator is Subha. She moved back to the US from South Africa after 23 years away and wanted to help others adjust to life in their new country. “One woman in TalkTime said she had never set foot in a classroom in her life. She grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. So for her, coming to TalkTime almost makes her giddy.”

Other refugees who come to ReWA never got beyond a few years in school, so adjusting to life in the US has many challenges for them. At ReWA, they are paired with a case manager who speaks their native language to help them access food, housing and ensure their basic needs are met. At the same time, they can also attend English class.

Marie Kjeldgaard is an English teacher at ReWA. “Our students are so motivated. That’s why I love teaching.”

Learning goes both ways

One Talk Time attendee explained about the education system in her home country. “Where I come from in Eritrea, you don’t start school until you are 10 years old and then you only go for 3-4 years. Here in the US you can learn anytime.” Another student left school at age 11, and now was taking ownership of her own learning and took pride in something as simple as having her own notebook to write in.

ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina explained that TalkTime differs from online class time because it’s informal. Sessions are 60 minutes twice a week and hosted by 2-3 volunteers who are provided with a list of topics and vocabulary words to use to stimulate conversation.

Yuliya added, “Also, since we never know who will show up to TalkTime, or what their English level will be, an ESL teacher is there to kick-off the session with an icebreaker question, like ‘Did you go outside today?’ This way, the teacher can quickly assess the students’ language levels and then assign them to break-out groups for the rest of the hour.” With the click of the button in Zoom, the attendees are distributed into small groups led by a facilitator, which makes conversation easier.

Amanda, a volunteer facilitator, said she is impressed by the students’ sense of responsibility. “Just learning how to read a bus schedule or how to make change [in coins]—these things take a lot of grit and determination. But once learned, they help one become independent. That is what is so rewarding about volunteering with TalkTime.”

[box] If you want to volunteer for TalkTime, email or visit: [/box]

Coming out of covid

In the past year, ReWA has helped over 200 immigrants and refugees in the Puget Sound access mental health counseling. Most suffer from depression, PTSD, or just have trouble adjusting to a new country.  All of these are exacerbated by the pandemic.

Azmi Jafaar is the clinical supervisor of ReWA’s Behavioral Health program. He was trained in Iraq as a medical doctor, and psychiatrist before coming to the US in 2016 where he became a certified Mental Health Professional in the state of Washington.

“I became interested in mental health when I was in high school. I read [Sigmund] Freud’s theories and learned how he treated his clients through ‘talk therapy’–which was revolutionary at the time.” Dr. Azmi said he was fascinated to learn how Freud classified the human mind, between the conscious and unconscious. “About 90% of our mental processes are unconscious. Most trauma can traced back to childhood trauma that often deeply buried deep in unconscious. Through talk therapy we can bring it to the surface and we can understand ourselves better. This is the first step to heal from trauma.”  

Increase in Calls

Over the past year, Dr. Azmi said the number of calls coming into ReWA has doubled. Although he said offering counseling by phone or video calls is less effective than in-person services, maintaining contact with clients during the pandemic was essential.

Dr. Azmi meets with clients by video and phone during the pandemic.

“In a crisis, it is normal for paranoia or superstition to increase, so keeping social connections, even by phone is crucial.”

Dr. Azmi knows about working during a crisis. He spent 15 years of his residency in general practice and surgery in Iraq and Libya, both sites of war and its aftermath. He decided to specialize in psychiatry and returned to Iraq where he studied for four more years.

Vaccine Hesitancy

For the past year, the main mental health complaints among ReWA clients were anxiety over the pandemic or losing their job, and dealing with illness of a family member. On top of this, Dr. Azmi said the spread of misinformation, coupled with social isolation, has led more people to believe in conspiracy theories. Dr. Azmi said when the vaccine was announced earlier this year, widespread conspiracy theories shared over social media led many of his clients to become hesitant about receiving the vaccine.

“My response was to get vaccinated. And to make sure my clients knew I was vaccinated. Over the past few months, this has encouraged most of them to also get vaccinated.”

ReWA’s counselors have also used this year to increase training in topics such as abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, trauma-informed care, and how to help clients deal with grief.

At the same time, Dr. Azmi was training staff in a new model of service delivery required by King County. Instead of a monthly cap for services, clients can receive what is deemed medically necessary. “This means the greater the stress and functional impairment the person experiences, the higher level of care is needed.”

ReWA is one of a handful of mental health providers in the Puget Sound who counsel immigrants and refugees in their native languages. ReWA counselors speak Arabic, Somali, Pashto, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi and Dari, and often share cultural background with their clients.

Dr. Azmi said, “This can help establish trust in communities where many hesitate to talk about mental health issues. But when they get help, it can change their life.”

Volunteer Appreciation

Vacuuming children. Is that a mistake in English vocabulary or a practical solution to messy kids?

Angela is a stay-at home mom of three, metal artist (pictured here in her workshop). She has been volunteering as a teacher’s aide at ReWA for eight years. When asked for an anecdote from the classroom, she recalled this line.

“We were discussing New Year’s resolutions and one student said he ‘was resolved to vacuum his children.’ We all cracked up–it wasn’t the right word exactly, but we understood—especially the parents among us.”

Angela said she used to volunteer at a film festival, but I decided, “”If I’m going to invest my time, I should spend it on something more meaningful to me.” When the covid-19 pandemic cancelled ReWA’s in-person ESL classes last spring, several volunteers stepped up to contact students weekly for conversation practice.

Another ESL volunteer, Annie, is a theater wardrobe coordinator who also wanted to get involved in the community. She started with ReWA in 2019 and has been calling six to eight students each week for conversation practice and homework help.

“Some are also studying for the citizenship exam and learning about the structure of the U.S. Congress. When the insurrection happened in January, we had talked about how history is still impacting current events. For students from countries with a history of colonialism, they understand this very well.”

She said some students are also curious about indigenous people in America, so she did some research and shared the Native Land App which helps people learn about local history by identifying the indigenous groups living in the area.

Both volunteers agree: they miss the classroom interactions. But these one-on-one conversations allow them to get to know the students better.

During the pandemic, ReWA ESL teachers have used zoom classrooms, phone apps and calls to stay connected with students.

Angela said, “One student from the Central African Republic used to be very shy in class and rarely spoke. But now we talk on the phone every week and she is becoming more comfortable trying out new English words.”

Many of ReWA’s ESL students arrived as refugees, fleeing violence. Some have lost family and friends, so even simple questions about their families and where they come from can bring painful memories to the surface. Angela said she has learned to ask more general questions and go from there. She said she admires these incredibly resilient people and their desire to learn and work hard to support their families.

Annie said, “Volunteering with ReWA this past year gave me a real measure of connection and I’m really grateful for that.”

Angela recalled a poignant moment in the conversation about New Year’s resolutions, “One student said, ‘This year I want to have a home.’” She sighed. “Thinking back, it has been a difficult year, but for me, it has also been very rewarding.”

[box] To learn more about volunteering with ReWA, visit our Volunteer page. [/box]

Citizenship boom

Have you ever wondered what an online Citizenship class looks like? It’s part history lesson, conversation practice and quiz show, where students are asked:

“Who signed the Emancipation Proclamation?”

“Who started the first free libraries?”

“What was the Civil War fought over?”*

Last year, ReWA’s citizenship classes moved online. In late 2020, thanks to a USCIS grant ReWA doubled their class schedule because of increased interest in preparing for the U.S. citizenship exam.

For each 12 week session, students convene online and follow a curriculum that prepares them for the U.S. citizenship exam. On-screen, students can follow along with the text book, Citizenship: Passing the Test: Civics and Literacy, and see fellow classmates in the sidebar. Students are from Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. They ask and answer questions, and during the writing assignment, hold up notebooks to the camera so their teacher can check their spelling of words like “Lincoln” and “Emancipation Proclamation”.

Mai came to citizenship classes in 2019-20 and recently passed the test. Congratulations, Mai!

Researchers estimate that helping immigrants become U.S. citizens has huge economic benefits as families invest in local economies. ReWA’s programs aim to help immigrant and refugee families integrate—socially, economically and politically. We do this through English, job readiness, and citizenship classes.

Annie Dimitras, Citizenship Coordinator said, “Our students are thrilled when they pass the test and for some, their children can get citizenship through them as well. That security for the whole family is a huge motivator for our clients.”

[box]If you want to learn more about Citizenship classes,


Access to learning soars as ESL goes online

Last March, ReWA’s ESL Team was struggling: few of the immigrants and refugees who attended ESL classes had internet or computer access at home.

Now, a year later, ReWA is offering five classes online serving over 70 students.

How did we do it? Let’s go back to March 13, 2020, the day Seattle Schools closed…

My name is Inga Muscio, I’m an English teacher at ReWA. Our students were suddenly out of the classroom, and we had to figure out how to help them keep up with the normalcy and ritual of our weekly classes. For many of our students, ESL classes are their primary opportunity to experience life in their new country in a safe, supportive atmosphere. In class, they have no need to be embarrassed or ashamed that they cannot communicate as well as they would like.

Having no frame of reference, much less any idea when we’d be able to get everyone back in the classroom, the ReWA ESL team rose to the challenge of this pandemic with ingenuity, compassion and resourcefulness.

We started off by immediately sending our students huge homework packets that could keep them learning for a few weeks as we transitioned to online classes. We weren’t sure how we’d do it, but we had to let them know that this was one part of their lives would hold steady, no matter what.

For our intermediate students, teachers kept in touch with phone calls and texts during those first few weeks, while we cobbled together a plan for the long term.

Our beginning level students, however, were in danger of slipping away from us. Lisa is a Level 1 English teacher at ReWA. She quickly discovered that many of her students were already using web-based chat apps like Viber and WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends near and far. So she downloaded the apps and was immediately successful reaching students who may have gone by the wayside.

The ESL team had started to meet weekly to share ideas on how to keep students engaged with remote learning and soon all the teachers were using the apps.

ReWA ESL teachers met weekly to share lessons-learned on keeping students connected during the pandemic.

After six months of online classes we took stock of our student population discovered something wonderful had happened: instead of losing students when in-person classes were cancelled, we found that many more were able to attend classes now because we offered online learning.

Marie, our evening English teacher, was the first to notice. Almost all of her students hold down full time-jobs. Pre-covid, they showed up to class tired to the bone. But when classes moved online, these students were able to get off work and log on when they got home with their families. Word spread and Marie’s evening class size doubled.

In addition, some students who had moved geographically further away from ReWA could still participate in English classes online. Class sizes were increasing for all of our teachers. Almost a year in, our classes are all filled to capacity.

stack of laptops
ReWA distributed 60 laptops to adult learners so they can learn computer literacy and stay connected to online ESL classes.

New possibilities have also arisen. One ReWA ESL teacher had a student who needed surgery. He was quite frightened, especially about being put under anesthesia. His teacher tried to assuage his fears, to no avail. Then she thought of two friends who are anesthesiologists. She set up a Zoom meeting for all of them to speak together.  The anesthesiologists had the knowledge and expertise to answer all of the student’s questions, and more importantly, to calm fears.

We now know that when things finally do get back to normal, online learning will continue to be an important part of our ESL program. Also, with funding from King County’s “Digital Equity for Adults with Barriers to Access and Services” program, ReWA distributed 60 laptops to our students, and with that, one of the major learning barriers has been lifted. While we all miss our students and love teaching in person, we certainly cannot ignore the many people we are now able to serve online.

[box] In February 2021 ReWA launched “Talk Time”, a twice-weekly, volunteer-led, online conversation group to help immigrants and refugees practice English conversation skills, discuss current events, and make social connections. If you are a ReWA client and would like to join the conversation group, email If you want to learn how to volunteer with ReWA, email [/box]