Finding Friendship through ESL
By: Courtney Mitchell
New culture. Different climate. Unfamiliar language. These are the struggles faced by refugees leaving their home country and moving to America to build a new life for their family. An unfamiliarity with English makes it feel impossible to find a job, navigate medical bills,and form community with English-speaking American neighbors. Welcome Neighbor STL saw this need in the community and rose to fill the gap by establishing the English as a second language (ESL) tutoring program. The program partners volunteers with a newly arrived refugee and while the pairs work to improve English proficiency, tutoring goes beyond English learning. Together, the tutors and their students learn from each other’s culture, serve as a trusting resource, and cultivate genuine, familial relationships.
Khadjia and her family moved from Syria to St. Louis four years ago. Despite initial challenges that come with moving to a new country, they soon found a community in St. Louis and began to enjoy their new lives here. After getting connected with Welcome Neighbor STL, Khadjia expressed interest in learning English, as she wanted to be able to understand and speak with her neighbors here.
Jo Doll found Welcome Neighbor through a Facebook group and became interested in tutoring as a way to honor her mom. She shared, “My mom did it her whole life, she worked with immigrants teaching them English and that spoke to me. I just lost my mom not long before that so I decided to reach out [to Welcome Neighbor] as a way to honor her.” Although having no personal background in teaching English, Jo soon learned that all she needed was her knowledge of English and the desire to form impactful relationships.
Welcome Neighbor quickly connected the pair and they began working together in November of 2019. After taking a break during stay-at-home orders, they returned to in-person tutoring, as both Jo and Khadija felt that was the most impactful way to learn. Working together once a week, the pair have faced various English-learning challenges. For Khadija, one of her biggest challenges is retaining information. “I’ll have a great tutoring session but will forget everything the next day,” Khadija expressed. Jo further struggled in determining the best tutoring techniques, as Khadija does not read in any of the three languages she speaks. Despite this difficulty, Jo says Khadija has made notable progress in confidence. The pair are working on learning vocabulary so Khadija can host a Welcome Neighbor Supper Club, while also practicing vocabulary for her son’s upcoming wedding.
“I’m very happy when Jo comes over to teach English because she’s very helpful. She’ll come over to teach and sometimes we just talk and things are friendly,”
While Jo and Khadija have seen successes in English learning, they have a bond that goes beyond just tutoring. “I’m very happy when Jo comes over to teach English because she’s very helpful. She’ll come over to teach and sometimes we just talk and things are friendly,” Khadija expressed. Jo has also learned valuable perspectives that inform her role as a Missouri State Representative. “It makes me really aware of the struggles you see in non-English speaking people and people that have just immigrated. I try to think as a State Representative of what we can do to make it easier for people. There’s lots of people out there that don’t have Welcome Neighbor or someone that’s helping them and I can’t imagine how they navigate our world because it is definitely a challenge.”
Kat Coffin also sought out the ESL tutoring program as a way to make a difference. “A lot of it was the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness during the Trump administration and just a desperate desire to do something. To make a difference even in a small way,” says Kat. After reading an article about Welcome Neighbor’s Executive Director Jessica Bueler’s response to the exploitation of refugee families by landlords, Kat decided tutoring was her way to make that difference.
Welcome Neighbor paired Kat with Maha, a young woman from Syria who is her same age. Maha, her husband, and their three sons moved from Syria to St. Louis a little over two years ago. For the first three months living in St. Louis, Maha and her husband received English lessons from the International Institute. Upon finishing classes there, Maha wanted to continue to improve her English speaking skills and became involved with Welcome Neighbor’s ESL tutoring program.
Maha and Kat began working together in July of 2019. Prior to the pandemic, Maha and Kat met three to four times a week at Maha’s apartment. Yet their transition to FaceTime in the early months of 2020 ultimately worked in their favor, as Maha and Kat made the decision to maintain their tutoring relationship long distance. “We just got on like a house on fire,” Kat joked, “to the point where when I told her I was moving to New York for grad school, at first she was finding a different tutor but then we just missed each other a lot so we ended up continuing the tutoring by FaceTime and that’s worked out great.”
“Kat is a wonderful person. Kat is family.”
Like Jo and Khadjia, Kat and Maha formed a relationship that went beyond just tutoring. “We have a really good friendship,” Maha shared. “Kat is a wonderful person. Kat is family.” When I spoke with Maha, her husband also proudly interjected that Kat is his “number one friend.” Kat further highlighted the strong bond she has with Maha and her family. “It’s so much more than just teaching. It’s being a part of their lives in a familial way. I consider her my family. Her kids, I’m kind of an aunt towards them. That relationship has meant more to me than anything else. So I’m glad I can help in any way that I can with learning English and navigating an entirely new world.”
Abdulsater and Bill Haggetery are a unique Welcome Neighbor tutoring pair, as they are the only men involved in the program. Welcome Neighbor pairs tutors and students together based on gender, and as there were no male volunteers, Bill was a welcome face. “They [Welcome Neighbor] were happy when I showed up asking, ‘Do you have anything I can do?’ because this fellow had wanted someone badly to work with, but nothing had worked out before, so we were matched up.”
Since retiring from working with the National Cemetery Administration, Bill sought out ways to become involved with his community. His wife connected him with Welcome Neighbor and, thanks to the transition to virtual tutoring during the Pandemic, he was able to maintain this commitment.
Abdulsater moved with his family from Syria, and despite working seven days a week and spending time with his wife and five children, Abdulsater continues ESL classes with the goal of passing his citizenship test.
Like the other tutoring pairs, their relationship is beyond just English learning. Since working with Abdulaster, Bill has learned more about Syria and Syrian culture, such as the experience of shopping for groceries in Syria and differences in family dynamics. Bill has also come to admire Abdulaster’s resilience. “I admire him and how hard he works and what he’s been able to do for his family. The man is working hard towards his goal and being able to help him work towards those goals is a satisfying feeling.”
The relationships between these volunteers and their refugee students are just three instances of the strong community that is found in Welcome Neighbor STL. To learn more about Welcome Neighbor STL and our Supper Club program, please visit our homepage and sign up for our newsletter by simply clicking on subscribe at the top of this page. We also have a very active Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/WelcomeNeighborSTL.