New Life Skills curriculum

“Life Skills” help refugees navigate a new culture

For most Americans, paying their utility bill online is pretty routine.

But what if you are a refugee who doesn’t speak English, doesn’t have a bank account, and has never used a computer?

Daily life can be overwhelming. 

To help manage these tasks, ReWA developed the Life Skills curriculum , which covers everything from what is culturally appropriate “small talk” with your neighbor, to making a doctor’s appointment, to paying bills online. The purpose of the curriculum is to help newcomers to the U.S. learn the complex systems many people who grew up here take for granted.

ReWA staff collaborated to create a curriculum for refugees in the Puget Sound, but it is applicable across the country.

An idea long overdue

This project brought together the collective experience of ReWA English teachers and case managers—many of whom moved to the U.S. from other countries. ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina, described how ReWA developed the curriculum.

“We gathered together several case managers—many of whom came to the U.S. as refugees themselves—and English teachers and together we brainstormed a list of topics. Then we divided into teams to write and edit and we ended up with nine lesson modules.”  

The nine modules are: Communication in U.S. Culture, Digital Literacy, Education, Financial Literacy, Food and Nutrition, Health, Housing, Transportation, and Workplace Communication. The lessons are offered in two levels: Beginner and Low Intermediate, so can be used in a classroom that has students of different levels.

The nine modules are: Communication in U.S. Culture, Digital Literacy, Education, Financial Literacy, Food and Nutrition, Health, Housing, Transportation, and Workplace Communication.

Many of ReWA’s case managers came to the U.S. as immigrants and refugees. Now they use their wealth of knowledge to help others.

In the classroom

One ReWA ESL teacher, Inga Link, said, “It’s easy to use—and a lot of classroom conversations grow out of the lessons. Just the other day, I taught from the financial literacy module.” She said students brought in the mail they received from their bank so they could learn the difference between bank statements and bank notices. “Other students asked about identify theft and how they can keep themselves safe.”   

ReWA is offering limited in-person classroom where students learn from the new Life Skills curriculum.

ReWA program manager, Gizachew Manahle, said the curriculum was funded by the Washington State Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. Manahle himself emigrated from Ethiopia years before and is glad ReWA can offer this resource to their clients, as well as the wider community.

“I wish I had this curriculum when I came here. The systems in the US are very complex, even for the people born here. With this life skills curriculum new arrivals can learn to respond to everyday challenges. And with greater cultural and economic integration, they develop a greater sense of community”.

With the influx of 3,000 Afghan refugees, ReWA is translating the curriculum into Dari and Pashto languages.

With the influx of 3,000 Afghan refugees, ReWA is translating the curriculum into Dari and Pashto languages.

Manahle said, “So far, we have shared the curriculum with dozens of other organizations and colleges across the state, and we hope it will be used nation-wide.”

The Life Skills Curriculum is available online for free download.

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 yuliya@rewa.org or visit: rewa.org/volunteer [/box]

Ramadan: Research, Write, Present

Eid Al-Fitr is the Islamic holiday celebrating the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan. This is the day when Muslims offer special prayers, greet each other with “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Eid”) and after a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, break the fast with a sumptuous meal and community gathering.

ReWA Youth Instructor, Seth Walker said, “Not everyone in the group is familiar with Ramadan, so this is a learning experience in more ways than one.”

The group project is part of ReWA’s Youth Job Readiness Training (YJRT) program, where youth from immigrant and refugee families from all over the world work in teams to research and create presentations to develop job readiness and life skills that will bring them success.

Students learn to conduct research online, participate in interviews, collaborate in teams and finish by offering a culminating presentation for students, parents and staff. This year, three groups decided to create presentations on the topics of immigration in America, the higab (headscarf) and Ramadan.

These student-led projects emphasize collaboration and creativity. “ReWA students are learning to pitch themselves and their ideas with the added pressure of doing so in a new language, English,” said, Kimberly Lee, Youth Program senior coordinator.

“All of our students are English language learners. But with our weekly virtual meetings, we give them the support to develop the confidence to do it,” said Seth. The program also has an advocacy component and ReWA invites speakers from a variety of job fields to share their work experience. They recently invited staff from Seattle Public Schools’ African American Male Achievement program to speak about life principles such as self-motivation, being impactful at school, and how to have a good work ethic –which they take apply in all areas of life.

Seth said YJRT sparks them to start thinking about what they want to do next in their lives—and plan the concrete steps to help them succeed. “This can be securing a summer internship, writing their first resume, or giving a presentation.”

He added, “These students have big dreams: to be doctors, nurses, artists and software engineers. At ReWA, we give them encouragement, help them visualize their futures. And then we help them hone their skills to make this a reality.”

Day 1 keeps families housed

A trained chemist stocking shelves at Costco. An experienced accountant mopping floors.

These women are only two of the many immigrants and refugees with professional backgrounds who come to the U.S. but get stuck in low-wage jobs. Without a chance to take courses to re-certify in their previous career fields, they struggle to make ends meet, and are one unexpected-bill away from being homeless.

This instability impacts their children, leading to generational poverty. As this is written, eviction moratoriums are about to run out, leaving thousands at risk of eviction.

But ReWA is working to change that.

Thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the Day 1 Families Fund, ReWA is helping families on the verge of homelessness stay safe at home during the pandemic, and make long-term career plans that help them return to professional careers with livable wages.

When “Meron”* came to ReWA last year, she was working as a janitor. She struggled to feed her kids and pay the rent in the south Sound. Her immediate need was stable housing, so ReWA’s housing program helped her get into low-income housing. Then, she was referred to ReWA’s Day 1 program where she received rental and tuition assistance to enroll in Renton Technical College. She is poised to graduate later this year with an AA degree in accounting and expects to make $25/hr, starting wage.**

ReWA Day 1 Coordinator, Fereshte Taherazer, said her clients may face major barriers, but they know how to hold onto their dreams. “One client is living in transitional housing and surviving on food stamps, but she is also on track to complete a phlebotomy course next month, and ReWA will help with her job search into the health care field.”

Taherazer said this drive to succeed reminds her of her own experience. “I see my story in them: I was a refugee to Seattle and grew up in public housing, and went on to graduate from the University of Washington. For so many immigrants and refugees, their experiences have given them a strong will to succeed.”

woman wearing face shield waves at camera from desk
ReWA career coaches help immigrants and refugees with the English and higher education background to return to professional careers.

At ReWA, Taherazer leads the Day 1 team of case managers, housing specialists and career coaches who meet every week to discuss which clients qualify for housing assistance, and to share the clients’ career plans. Yosef, a ReWA employment specialist who speaks Amharic, works with the Day 1 program to help ReWA clients get jobs and resettle.

“Many housing programs provide assistance for everyone, but don’t provide long term career advancement. For those with English and job skills who just need a short-term boost to rise out of poverty wages, Day 1 is the answer.” 

Not only does Day 1 keep them from becoming homeless, it provides 9-12 months of support from case managers. This support can help them manage unexpected costs, hone budgeting skills, and access other ReWA programs, such as counseling, after-school programs, and immigration legal services, as needed.

Man seated at small desk with laptop, studying in his closet
Dawud is studying to be a drafter at Highline College. Now that classes are all online, he studies in any quiet place – even in a closet!

Yosef recalls a young man, an asylum-seeker from Ethiopia, who was half way through his AA in IT Technology studies at Renton Technical College when the pandemic broke out. Almost overnight he lost his ride-sharing job, and was about to quit school and find any available work to pay his rent. Instead of this being a lost year for his education, at ReWA, he received housing and tuition assistance so he could finish the course and graduate. He doesn’t just graduate from college, he graduates from the instability of surviving hand to mouth in the gig economy.

“Without ReWA, I was about to drop the course. But now I’m good.”

As for the chemist? She and her ReWA Day 1 career coach, Fereshte Taherazer, have found a pharmacy program that will recertify her while she receives housing assistance. Taherazer said, “Our clients are experts at being resilient. They are eager to change their lives—all they need with a little help.”

 

 

 

 

 

*Names changed

**While this is still short of a livable wage for a single parent with three kids in King County, her participation in the Day 1 program has doubled her income and halved her housing costs.

Starting Careers in Childcare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations to the 12 graduates of the Early Childhood Education Initial Certificate course who completed a year of academic studies in partnership with North Seattle College and attended the first ever graduation ceremony online on August 19th

Certificate for Early Childhood Education certificate
Teachers presented students with their certificates at the graduation on Zoom in August 2020

Salwa is one of these graduates. Since completing ReWA’s ChildCare Basics training course last year, she found a job as an assistant teacher at a preschool in Kent.

“I love working with these children everyday, to be a part of their growing up,” she said.

Although she has her own growing family to manage at home, she continued with two more training courses and graduated in August with an Initial Certificate in Early Childhood Education.

ThiThi Gray, program coordinator said, “I am so proud of these students. Some of them really struggled in the beginning with going back to school, then moving classes online during the pandemic. But they pushed through. This wasn’t just a vocational training program—this is changing their own self-expectations. And it’s affecting all parts of their lives.”

Salwa is now a lead teacher at the preschool, and plans to continue her education in early Childhood Education at a local college. (She also got her driver’s license in 2020–well done, Salwa!)

Congratulations to all the 2019 Graduates!

 

Next Steps chart for students interested in Early Childhood Education certification
Next Steps chart for students interested in Early Childhood Education certification