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.

Local exhibit promotes acceptance, offers historical perspective

Story and photo by JEFF DUNN

It’s been almost two years since the largest public demonstration in Utah’s history. On April 9, 2006, roughly 43,000 Latinos marched in Salt Lake City, promoting unity in the Hispanic community and petitioning the state for comprehensive immigration reform.

This year, Armando Solorzano is bringing the rally back to life with a photo-documentary titled “Invisible No More: Latinos Dignity March in Utah.” Solorzano says he received more than 4,000 pictures from participants in the demonstration before settling on 700 of the most striking images.

“The reason I did the exhibit was to provide a different aspect to the undocumented immigrants,” Solorzano said. “The whole idea was to portray their feelings, their hopes, their expectations and the love they feel for the United States.”armando-solorzano

The exhibit has been successful so far, according to Solorzano. More than 85,000 people visited when the documentary was first displayed at the city library, and about 8,000 people showed up in February to see the exhibit at Westminster College.

Solorzano and his staff have a goal of 100,000 people viewing the photographs, and with trips to Dixie State, Weber State and the University of Utah scheduled for later this year, that goal seems attainable.

Solorzano, a professor of family and consumer science at the U, said the exhibit helps dispel negative stereotypes about Latinos.

“The whole intention [of the documentary] was to humanize their experience, because the perception is that these people are coming here to violate the law or to engage in criminal acts,” he said. “But that is not true.”

Tony Yapias, the main organizer of the march, donated more than 1,500 photos taken by his wife and son.

“Our purpose was to send a message to the rest of the country that we need immigration reform,” he said. “The march was a huge success. There’s been nothing like it in the history of this state.”

Though the march did not immediately achieve the immigration reform its organizers hoped for, Yapias said the march has promoted change in other ways. For example, since 2006, the state has received a record number of applications for citizenship and hundreds of thousands of Latinos have registered to vote.

“We’re beginning to see the fruits of the march,” he said. “We accomplished a lot more than we ever expected.”

Yapias said the documentary has provided him a window to the past and an opportunity to contextualize the march.

“When you’re doing something, you don’t realize what you’re doing,” he said. “The documentary opened up a new perspective for us to look back and realize what happened.”

Yapias said Solorzano has been an instrumental contributor to Utah’s Latino community.

“Professor Solorzano is one of the unique professors in the state,” he said. “I’m glad to have had an opportunity to work with him.”

Gonzalo Palza, who continues to work with Yapias in promoting immigration reform, helped organize the walk and also participated.

“It was empowering, a great, great moment for Latinos in the state,” he said. “It triggered some concerns from the status quo. It triggered a bunker mentality. For the first time, [the status quo] really felt threatened. The state realized this is an issue that needs to be dealt with and cannot be ignored.”

But Palza also is quick to point out that the demonstration had negative results as well. He feels that the march has limited reform bills from being passed and encouraged anti-immigration legislation. Some have become even more entrenched in their fears and stereotypical views since the rally, he said.

Still, Palza believes the event brought the Latino community together in a powerful way.

“It was a great opportunity for us to display our unity,” he said. “Everybody who participated in the march felt really good.”

Solorzano’s collection of photographs has brought thousands together, as well. He said the media often focus on negative aspects of the Latino community, but he wants to use the exhibit to focus on its contributions and history in the state.

“Our struggles, our contributions, our participation in political or religious areas is not taken into consideration,” he said. “It looks like we don’t have a history, despite the fact that we have been in this place, in Utah, for about 15,000 years. Nobody knows about us.

“The intention of the exhibit was to document, to bring history alive again, and to remind people that we are bringing important components for the history of the state,” he added.

And Solorzano knows plenty about history, among other things. He was born in Ciudad Guzman, Mexico, but has lived in the United States for 32 years. He has an impressive academic resume, holding multiple degrees from several institutions. He said his constant desire to learn has given him motivation in school.

“Part of my way of living is I need to learn something every day,” he said. “I can’t go to bed without knowing something new. The only reason I like to learn is that I like to teach and share with others.”

Solorzano has been learning about other cultures his entire life. His mother is French, his father is Native American and his wife is Italian American.

“The majority of people believe that Mexicans are mainly Spaniards or Mestisos,” he said. “It’s pretty interesting, because my diversity has been at the roots of who I am.”

As for his two children, “they identify themselves as members of the cosmic race. My children are the combination of all races and different nationalities and countries,” he said.

Solorzano said the United States is about 20 years away from the most important change in the country’s history.

“By the year 2035, minorities or people of color will become the majority in the United States,” he said. “In order to come to that transition in a peaceful way, we need to understand each other more. I think that the racism and discrimination that people typically face is based on a lack of knowledge.”

The tenured professor said he works daily with students to promote diversity and, more importantly, acceptance.

“In my classes, I try to make the students more aware of the situation,” he said. “The whole idea is that we can come together and live in peace. Twenty years from now, America will look very, very different.

“By understanding people of a native background, Asian background, or Latino background, we will be able to maintain this society as one of the most exciting places to live in the world.”

It’s an early spring day, and the late afternoon light sifts through the half-drawn blinds hanging in Solorzano’s office window. Most of his colleagues and students are on their way home, having already absorbed a day’s worth of teaching and learning. Not this man. He sits attentively at his computer, still typing, still working, still dreaming.