IOCC Language Class Offers Way out of Isolation

Baltimore, MD (June 12, 2002) — A trip to the zoo, a visit to the local library, dinner at a restaurant. All three are simple activities that can seem insurmountable to someone who doesn’t know English.

For recent immigrants to the United States, that sense of isolation, compounded by a lack of familiarity with American culture, can lead to poverty. Learning English as a second language (ESL) is an important key to survival, as a group of 16 Ethiopian immigrants recently found out.

The Ethiopians, whose native tongue is Amharic, participated in a pilot ESL project sponsored by International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). The parish-based class was professionally staffed and volunteer supported. The students, four men and 12 women, attend St. George Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Arlington, Va.

“I like this class because I didn’t know English before I took this class,” said a student named Asnakhe.

“I practice some words,” said another student, named Heymannot. “My hope is to get better after I take all of the class.”

For more than 30 weeks, the Ethiopians learned basic English language skills and how to apply them in real-life situations. Three of them are preparing to graduate to a public ESL program designed to bring students to full language proficiency. Others will repeat the IOCC class. Because publicly-funded ESL classes have high drop-out rates, “feeder” programs such as IOCC’s are necessary to prepare students for further instruction, said Robert Pianka, director of IOCC’s U.S. Program.

“The concept of creating a ‘feeder program’ that draws on the knowledge and support systems of (Orthodox) churches … is rather unique,” said MaryAnn Florez, assistant director of the National Center for ESL Literacy Education in Washington, D.C. “It is also extremely practical in that it uses the talents and resources of (parish) members, while moving learners toward the resources and structures that exist in the wider community.”

If community support can be secured, IOCC is prepared to start a second class in the Washington, D.C. area. Students in the pilot project went on field trips to the National Zoo in Washington, to local libraries and to an Ethiopian restaurant. The class focused on vocabulary, grammar, numbers, colors, time and the calendar, as well as language skills in the areas of health and medicine, and money and banking.

“ESL addresses the key cause of poverty within our immediate reach,” Pianka said. “The goal is to teach study habits, give the students basic skills and confidence, and create a support group to sustain them in their continuing studies. We can warm students up so that they can succeed in the public sector.”

Citing U.S. Census data, Pianka said “linguistic isolation” is the leading cause of poverty among refugees and recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Historically, those immigrants who overcome the language barrier achieve a lower incidence of poverty than the national average.

But the decline of strong ethnic neighborhoods in the U.S., along with higher divorce rates and a widening generation gap, has led to the breakdown of immigrant families, Pianka said. Women, especially, have become vulnerable to poverty, along with younger and older family members who are in their care.

Through its ESL program, IOCC seeks to connect parishes across the country in a network that effectively and meaningfully confronts poverty. IOCC will provide each ESL initiative with the model of instruction and an implementation plan, as well as recruit a teacher/trainer. IOCC also will provide common services, such as training, conferences, a newsletter and grant-writing, Pianka said.

Most classes last a year, at which point students should be ready to enter a publicly-funded program. Funding for the IOCC program will come from IOCC, individual donors, participating parishes and anticipated grants from non-Orthodox agencies.

“The students are getting it,” said Linda Dinardo, IOCC’s teacher/trainer. “They are speaking more, with more ease and with greater understanding than they were initially.”

IOCC, founded in 1992, is the official humanitarian aid agency of Orthodox Christians.