Local partnership provides free English classes to Afghan refugees

Published: Feb. 13, 2022 at 8:31 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Afghan refugees who have been staying at Massanetta Springs Conference Center have gotten the chance to improve their English, thanks to a partnership between Church World Services, Eastern Mennonite University and the Massanutten Technical Center.

Since fall, around 200 Afghan refugees have stayed at the center at one point or another, and the English learning program has helped them adjust to their new home.

“It’s been really exciting. It’s nice to feel like we’re making a difference with some folks who are coming through this area and hopefully staying in this area, and just kind of trying to help them build a foundation in terms of language and getting to know our culture so that they can have success,” said Melissa May, an English instructor at EMU.

Church World Services Harrisonburg offers English learning programs and other classes to all the refugees it serves, but when Afghan Refugees arrived at Massanetta Springs, it became clear transportation would be an issue, so CWS reached out to EMU and MTC to bring the classes to the refugees.

“It’s really neat to see the way everyone, all of our teachers, CWS, EMU, has coordinated to provide a service that is pressing, it’s an immediate need,” said Jeremy Samsoe, the director of EMU’s Intensive English Program.

CWS said the program has been a big help for the refugees as they find jobs and begin to adjust to their new lives in the U.S.

“A lot of people, once they do reach those language goals that they have, they get driver’s licenses, they express interest in starting a business, or going back to school,” said Emily Bender, CWS Harrisonburg development & communications coordinator.

Instructors said one barrier is time. The refugees staying at the facility can be resettled at any point.

“Sometimes we will see them for a few weeks. A couple we’ve seen them for a few months, but for the most part they’re turning over pretty regularly as they get resettled,” said Melissa May.

The refugees are also all coming into the class with different levels of knowledge of the English language.

“Most of them have a very basic grasp of English, or they have a beginner’s level because of the work they’ve done with the military in Afghanistan,” said May. “We’re working with as low as getting their ABCs and 123s to more conversational level, and how you say things in the present tense and past tense.”

EMU and MTC each offer two two-hour classes a week in the classrooms set up at Massanetta Springs. CWS also offers other types of classes to the refugees.

“Our staff rotates to offer different cultural orientation classes like health, employment, housing, and so on,” said Emily Bender.

May says she is grateful for the opportunity to help the refugees and connect with them as they adjust to their new lives.

“The young women happen to gravitate toward me and our other female teacher Maria, so it’s been wonderful to feel like a mentor for them and to hope for their success in the public school system wherever they’re resettled next and to see them grow in confidence and optimism about their new lives here,” she said.

CWS said the refugees are grateful for the support the community has given them over the past few months.

“We definitely see people working very hard to become contributing members of this community that has really stepped up and welcomed them so warmly,” said Emily Bender.

There are currently around 50 refugees still staying at Massanetta Springs.

CWS says for anyone who wants to get involved they have a mentoring program for high school-aged refugee youth to meet with community members around once a month.

You can keep up with CWS and their work with Afghan refugees here.

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