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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.”

If you want to volunteer for TalkTime, email yuliya@rewa.org or visit: www.rewa.org/volunteer