|While every refugee's story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.
~ Antonio Guterres
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
The mission of Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program (IRWP) is to increase the independence and reduce the isolation of immigrant and refugee women by teaching them basic English and practical living skills at no cost in the security of their own homes. Since 1995, IRWP has helped women who have arrived in St. Louis, Missouri from other countries to make a new life in the United States.
“These women come from very dangerous situations in their home countries,” says Sister Rosel. "We teach them in their homes because they are already comfortable in their surroundings. Also, they save the time and money of getting a babysitter and finding transportation. I have the opportunity to get to know their family members. I use their names and the things in the house as part of the lessons. We meet two times a week and we usually work with them for three to four years. I make it a point to learn some phrases in their native tongue. They become the teacher and I am the student, resulting in higher self-confidence for them."
“The women I have taught the past three years have been in their 30s and 40s. They have come from Ethiopia, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The woman from Ethiopia is now a U.S. citizen. Our foundress Blessed Theresa reached out to women and children who are poor through education. As School Sisters, our gift of internationality prepares us to do this kind of work while respecting and honoring the various cultures and languages of the people we serve.” Even with 105 volunteer teachers logging nearly 5,000 hours of service, IRWP has a waiting list.
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To learn more about the ministries of School Sisters of Notre Dame, please visit www.ssndcentralpacific.org
Photo credit: Linda Behrens, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Community Engagement Staff
A BIRTHDAY SURPRISE
It was the day before my birthday, and I had a class scheduled as usual. I arrived at my student’s (To Toe’s) house, and found she had not only baked a cake for me, but it was decorated with my name, and had candles with my age! She had her whole family gathered around, and they all sang happy birthday to me. I could not believe how thoughtful and sweet they were to remember me in such a special way! To Toe told me that I was the 6th member of her family. I am blessed to know her!
Learning for all of us comes in leaps and bounds. Recently my student, who has never attended school, called me on the phone to say she needed to change our meeting time. Since she has children who usually do her phoning, this was a bold step. Yesterday she read aloud Brown Bear (a children's book) with inflection and laughter in her voice—something that I do not experience when I hear the family speak Kurdish to each other. It was more than imitation of my reading style; she was understanding the cadence of questions and responses in English. I know that the next "hearers" of this children's story—her grandchildren—will be cuddling in her lap. Her "thank you very much" is received appreciatively.
Colleen R., Volunteer
Five years ago when I came here, I lost everything I owned. And I had ears, but could not hear; eyes but could not see; mouth but could not speak. I could not understand anything. Now after working with teachers, I can understand. I work hard at my job, own a house, and children are doing good in school. I am happy. Next I want to be a citizen. American people have been so nice to me…I want to be American too.
B.M., Student from Afghanistan
Love of Teaching Inspires Volunteer
Sr. Charleen Barta, SSND, a former elementary school teacher and administrator, joined the Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program because she loved teaching, especially teaching people who needed special help. “I saw a need for women to be educated and also learn the practical skills of living in America,” she explains. Since she became a teacher in February 1999, she has worked with over 40 women. Her students have come from many places, including Bosnia, Mexico, Albania, and Vietnam. She currently works with four students a week.
Sr. Charleen finds many rewards in having a hand in helping her students advance. She is thrilled to see students become independent in their daily lives and to share the happiness of the students who are able to become U.S. citizens. “I feel like I’m following the School Sisters’ charism, which is to serve women, the poor, and youth,” she says. “For me, this work is a ministry, not a job. We’re truly ministering to women and also their families.”
Our Special Student
IRWP received a special request for a teacher. B.W., a 67 year old woman from Ethiopia, spoke English but was due to take her citizenship test in less than two months. She was blind and could not study on her own. Within days of the referral a new teacher, Linda called to volunteer. Linda taught grade school and was eager to work with an adult woman. They lived less than two miles apart.
For seven weeks they worked together on history, civics, and the constitution. So B.W. could study between classes, Linda made cassette tapes covering material that B.W. could listen to for homework. When B.W. called after her test, she proudly announced that she had passed her test. “Tonight I can finally sleep.”