Bay Area program that teaches Afghan refugees English at risk

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Some could understand the prompt, which was printed on the documents in front of them in English. Others just stared at him and tried to untangle the words. There were furrowed brows and nervous hands, but every face was in focus.

That wasn’t what students were used to doing in the mosque at the Noor Islamic and Cultural Community Center (NICCC), a nonprofit on Concord’s Treat Boulevard. But the students were there for a reason: Over the past year, they had been driven from their homes in Afghanistan and resettled in California’s East Bay. And to succeed in their new country, they had to learn English.

“Their parents said the main reason they left Afghanistan was because of their children. They wanted to give their children a future, an education,” said Sedique Popal, president of NICCC. “When they got here, they found the schools were open. But if they are limited in English, they cannot pass.

It has been a year since the Taliban seized Kabul and regained control of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal in August 2021. Girls above sixth grade have been expelled from Afghan classrooms. Even before the fall of the government, three decades of war had fractured the country’s school system. According to the international humanitarian organization save the childrenas many as eight million children need help to access education across Afghanistan.

A mosque in Concord teaches English to newly arrived Afghan students. Video: Elissa Miolene The Chronicle

More than 87,000 Afghans have arrived in the United States as part of Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government’s effort to connect Afghan refugees with resettlement services. Since arriving, children resettled in California have been directed into the region’s school system, placed in English-language programs with other new immigrants from around the world, the largest proportion of whom speak Spanish, according to the California Department of Education.

Shortly after these children entered school, Popal began receiving calls from teachers asking if NICCC could provide bilingual support for their students. During the 2021-22 school year, the number of Afghan students entering the Mount Diablo school system has skyrocketed. From 2020 to 2021, 44 Afghan children were enrolled in kindergarten to grade 12. But over the next school year, that number jumped to 144. The 227% increase left the school system scrambling.

Carmen Garces, director of English Learner Services for the Mount Diablo Unified School District, said it was difficult to find qualified bilingual teachers or social workers who speak Dari, Pashto or Farsi.

“I’ve had two vacancies all year, but we haven’t had a chance to hire anyone,” Garces said.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already critical teacher shortage across California. Half of the districts analyzed by the study reported shortages of bilingual education.

The region’s high cost of living, low teacher salaries and exhausting nature of teaching during COVID-19 have contributed to the shortage, said Alberto Nodal, kindergarten teacher and chair of the California Hispanic Caucus. Teachers Association. Nodal also pointed out that for bilingual teachers, accreditation comes into play. When teachers arrive from another country, they are often not qualified to teach in the United States, even with decades of experience.

“We have no support. That’s the bottom line,” said Hayward kindergarten teacher Tammy Braun.

One of Braun’s students, a 6-year-old Afghan boy, has trouble communicating with Braun or his classmates – and whenever he doesn’t show up for school, Braun has no way of join him or his family. Braun reckons Mohammad has missed a month of school since January, which has pushed him further behind other students in his class.

“We need to find translators to be able to communicate with these families,” Braun said. “I don’t even know if his parents realize how late he is.”

Saturday morning

The NICCC attempted to raise funds for a program that would fill this gap, which originally planned to bring students together after school three times a week. An Afghan refugee himself, Popal knew that with each passing day, students were wasting irreplaceable time. The only reason he came to America, he said, eventually becoming a professor of linguistics at the University of San Francisco, was because of education.

If students cannot unlock the education provided to them, Popal fears they are at greater risk of dropping out. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that, historically, English Learners have lower graduation rates than all students: in 2018, for example, English Learners graduated from high school at a 68% nationwide rate, as opposed to the 85% graduation rate. for all students.

“One thing is to bring immigrants here … and provide them with basic needs – food, clothing and shelter,” Popal said. ” It’s necessary. But I believe that for these children, it is not enough. We have to provide education. That is what will make them productive citizens in this country.

Children participate in the educational program at the Noor Islamic and Cultural Community Center in Concord on May 21, 2022.

Elissa Miolene/The Chronicle

After six months of fundraising, Popal decided to open the doors of NICCC to students with the funds they had available, as well as donations from the City of Fremont and the Hello Neighbor Network, a collection of nonprofit organizations. profit center based in Pennsylvania. The NICCC didn’t have the money to bring the kids together three times a week, so they settled for just one: Saturday mornings.

On May 14, the program began. The NICCC gave students a series of four tests – reading, writing, speaking and listening – to assess their basic understanding of English.

Over 70% of students tested by NICCC scored level one, which means they had no knowledge of English. The remaining 30% scored at level two, meaning they were slightly above the most basic level, but still cannot benefit from a day of English-only instruction.

“What we found is that there are kids who go to school from 8 to 3 every day, but they can’t produce a sentence in English,” Popal said. “How would you feel if you were sitting in a classroom and the teacher was talking, and talking was just noise, every day?”

The language barrier does not only affect students’ academics.

find their voice

Maryam Noori, who relocated to Walnut Creek last fall, said her 6-year-old daughter, Sufiya, had changed completely after moving from Afghanistan.

Like many families, the Nooris’ journey was arduous: leaving Afghanistan during the US withdrawal, they spent 45 days waiting for their documents to be processed in Germany. After that, they waited another 33 days at a treatment center in Virginia – a situation that led Noori, who was pregnant, to lose 22 pounds in a month.

They finally arrived in California, nearly three months after fleeing their homes. The sudden change, combined with the loss of her family and friends and the inability to communicate with anyone her own age, has been difficult for Sufiya.

“We came in November, but she still has no friends,” Noori said. “When I asked her why, she said it was because she couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand her. She feels so alone here.

Many NICC Saturday morning volunteers are themselves Afghan refugees, forced to leave their country after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s.

“What these children are going through, my parents have been going through,” said Henah Akbar, a volunteer teacher at NICCC. “I feel a lot for the children. They left their home abruptly, they wanted to escape the war, they came here for a better life. I’m just there to help them and make them feel welcome and comfortable.

Some volunteers walk through Concord, go to children’s homes to knock on their doors, pick them up and return to the mosque. Others take breakfast – pancakes, eggs or donuts for the kids and lots of coffee for the teachers – and display them in the NICCC’s de facto cafeteria. Still others arrive to teach, traveling from San Francisco, Palo Alto, and even Turlock to make it in time.

At 9 am, the NICCC is buzzing with activity. After breakfast, 20 middle and high school students stream into the women’s mosque, and an almost equal number of elementary school students infiltrate the men’s. Originally, the NICCC only planned to tutor older children. But on the first day of class, the students showed up with their younger siblings.

“We told them we weren’t prepared for this, but they said they wanted to learn,” Popal said. “We set up a few tables, moved a few stakes and made a plan.”

NICCC will continue to open every Saturday until funding ends – in November. After that, the future of the program is uncertain.

“It was nice to see the kids socializing, laughing,” Akbar said. “We don’t know how long they haven’t been able to do this.”

Elissa Miolene is a graduate student at Stanford University School of Journalism and a former media team intern at The Chronicle. Twitter: @elissamio

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