Overcoming Obstacles, Step 1

The first step is an act of bravery.  It starts with a phone call or a visit to our office.  What we call the “student intake” is the process an adult immigrant goes through to become a student with VEP.

Some people phone the office to ask for help, struggling with the increased communication challenge of the telephone.  We might get three hang-up calls in a row, as the caller summons the nerve to speak.  Our program director, Irma, speaks fluent Spanish, and I know a few words, yet we try first to use English.  We help the speaker of Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Korean, to convey their message, asking them “Do you want to be a student?”  “Do you want to learn English?”  “Come here on Thursday, January five?”

Others just show up at our door, wide-eyed, apologetic, and visibly nervous, because using the phone is too hard.  Many people tell us later, sometimes years later, that the smiling person opening that door gave them courage and hope.  We help immediately if possible, or we write an appointment card and point to the calendar.  photo

Intake.  The word sounds so clinical, but the process is warm and human.  We sit with the man or woman and collect a wide array of information. We give a reading test and obtain a writing sample, if the student is capable.  But more importantly, we listen to the student, who finds a way to tell us their life story.  They open up to us, so desperate for help, when they realize that someone truly hears them and sees them.

Some tell of leaving family behind – parents, brothers and sisters…  One mother came to us, her 3 yr. old daughter in tow, but she said she has three older children.  “They are with my parents…,” she said, and I thought it was fortunate she has a support network here, but she continued, “…in Morocco.”

Many tell of their advanced degrees and education, their jobs as nurses and psychologists, business people and teachers, but here they make a living washing dishes and cutting lawns.  Others, barely literate in their native language, have only a few years of elementary school.  Each has a spark, a belief that speaking English will help them do better.

Others are refugees from war-torn countries, mothers escaping abusive homes, parents who must feed children and provide a path to success for them.   “My mother got me out of the country.  She saved my life,” chokes a woman, now a mother herself.  It is 15 years later, but the pain has not ebbed.

All of them talk about their dreams: to help their children who are in school, to support their aging parents, to become a citizen, to go to college, or just to talk to doctors and be able to shop for survival.

We ask a lot of questions about work life and income, family composition and goals, and by the time the interview is over, we know a lot more than their score on a reading test.  We know another member of our local community, a parent of a child in our schools, a worker at stores we frequent.  They leave our office with a renewed spirit, knowing that someone in the United States, someone in Chester County, Pennsylvania, cares enough to help them.  And that just might propel them through another few weeks until we find them a tutor.

by Patty Rappazzo Morgioni, VEP Program Coordinator


I am Nuha

This post is part of a series of student responses to our question, “What has the Volunteer English Program meant to you?”Untitled-1

“I am Nuha from Iraq.  We are six people in my family. I have four children and my husband. We lived a good life when we were in Iraq before the war. My husband was a professor at the university, and he had a private office where he worked as a bridge designer. My oldest daughter was studying medicine when we were in Iraq. She needed one and a half years to become a doctor. Two years ago, she graduated from University of Pennsylvania with a major in Biology. My second daughter graduated from Swarthmore College and her major was Pre-Med. And my third daughter will graduate in October from Cabrini University and her major is Math. Hayder, that is my son, is in the second year at Penn State, and his major is Computer Engineering.

“I came to the US in 2008 as a refugee and I couldn’t speak English well. I felt lonely and I hated my life because I couldn’t share when people talked. My friends wanted to help me to learn English, and one of them called me and said she found a good program for me to learn English. She gave me the telephone number for the Volunteer English Program. I called them and I made an appointment with them. I went with my husband, because I couldn’t go alone because I couldn’t understand what the people said. I met the Program Manager and she offered me herself to start with me as a teacher because she didn’t find a volunteer to teach me. This lady helped me to speak and she gave me confidence to speak with people. She invited me to do a workshop and we did a CV for me that helped me to find a job. When I was looking for work as a volunteer, I asked to work in the VEP office. They accepted that, and I worked with them. That gave me more confidence, because they taught me how to print and do copying, which also helped me to find a job.

“I am working now and have applied to study in college. Soon I will be able to apply for citizenship, and I hope to become a US citizen in 2013. I will never forget these angels at Volunteer English Program, because they brought happiness to my life.”