Refugees learn at The English Skills Learning Center

Story and photo by NATHANIEL BINGAMAN

Imagine moving to a new country where you do not know the language and you do not have any formal educational experience. Even holding a pencil is new to some. This is the case for thousands of refugees every year. But, with the help of the English Skills Learning Center in Salt Lake City, these individuals are able to learn basic skills such as reading and writing in English.

Beth Garstka, the volunteer coordinator for the ESLC, said more than 16 million refugees live around the world and more than 1,100 come to Utah per year. These individuals come from countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt and Sudan. They are people suffering from war, natural disasters and famines. They come to America with the hope of freedom and improving their lives, but many of the refugees do not have a formal education.

The ESLC offices are located at 631 W. North Temple. It was originally called Literacy Volunteers of America-Wasatch Front (LVA-WF). Its founding member, Mary Hausen, formed LVA-WF in 1988. She was previously involved with an affiliate in Connecticut.

The organization’s first mission was to help improve literacy in adults and those learning English as a second language. In 2001, due to the rapid growth of refugees in the world and non-English speakers in the community, the organization focused solely on English as a Second Language.

The nonprofit organization is unique because it works with a student’s availability. “If they do not have transportation we will meet them at a library or church, anywhere that is convenient for them,” Garstka said.

Multiple class options are available to the students, including one-on-one classes and small group classes that have four to 10 students at a time. Many students participate in classes that prepare individuals to become United Sates citizens. There are even classes to help parents better communicate with teachers and enable them to read their child’s report card. Best of all, the classes are free.

Students have a good reason to come to class. “We teach the people what they want to learn, not what they don’t have interest in,” Garstka said.

The ESLC focuses on where the students are in their life. For example, if students want to drive so they can get to work, they will be taught to read the necessary books and learn writing skills so they can obtain a driver’s license. If they want to obtain United States citizenship, the ESLC will teach lessons pertaining to obtaining that goal.

Jose Amezcua participated in a program offered by the ESLC while in grade school.

“We teach people simple things like the alphabet or even the proper way to hold a pencil,” Garstka said.

The tutors are volunteers 18 years of age or older. These volunteers go through a 14-hour training session where they learn how to teach reading, writing, listening skills and speaking activities. No previous teaching or tutoring experience is required and individuals do not need to know another language because all classes are taught only in English. For those wanting to volunteer, the ESLC offers information on various volunteering opportunities.

“We have amazing volunteers who love being here,” Garstka said.

When the ESLC first began it had a program called “I Can Read” aimed at elementary students who were reading below grade level. The program was eventually adopted by the Utah State Office of Education and used in schools throughout the state.

“The ESL program helped me a lot,” said Jose Amezcua 29, who took ESL classes while he was in grade school. “Without it I would have had no friends and it would be hard for me to get an education in this country.”

Now a college graduate and an electronics salesman at a local Sears store. Amezcua is grateful for the ESL program and the help he received. “Without the classes it would have been hard for me to go to college and get a job,” he said. “Without a job it would be hard for me to take care of my wife and family,”

Learning a new language is difficult for almost everyone, but The ESLC helps make that transition a little easier.