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Refugee support center finds many Afghan arrivals are in need of literacy help

Thought Catalog
The Catherine McAuley Center assesses new arrivals to the area to determine how best to support them as they resettle in Iowa. The majority of Afghan arrivals assessed so far are considered emerging literacy learners in either their native language and/or English.

The Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) in Cedar Rapids helps new arrivals to Iowa resettle comfortably. Part of its process includes literacy assessments. And according to CMC, the majority of those assessed so far are emerging literacy students.

“So what happened with our new friends and family, from Afghanistan specifically, as they've been coming in, we've tested a few of them, we've assessed them. And we found by and large, they are either not literate in any language they speak or they're not literate in English," Anne Dugger, the director of education services, said.

According to the Education Policy and Data Center, only 47 percent of those between the ages of 15-24 are literate, with a large disparity between boys and girls.

Historically, about 30 percent of students in CMC's programs are considered in the emerging literacy category. Dugger said when a person is unable to read or write in a language they speak, that's because of a lack of opportunity, not a matter of intelligence. And many times, new arrivals can speak English just fine, but don't read or write.

In some countries, women are not encouraged to go to school past a certain age, or children can't go to school because war and violence is so prevalent around their homes, Dugger explained. And it's even more difficult for new arrivals to learn to read and write a language that has a completely different alphabet. Both Pashto and Dari, the dominant languages spoken in Afghanistan, have a different alphabet system.

"We've had so many students where we've literally taught them: the first step is how to hold the pencil. And there are students who have asked to take a picture of that, [to say] 'Look! I want to show my friends and family I'm holding a pencil. And I've never done that before,'" Dugger said.

Dugger described what it was like to be in the same room as a new arrival wanting to learn how to read and write in English.

"It's one of the most brave, courageous things I have seen in my whole life: is to meet somebody who does not know the language. And they're saying to you, usually through an interpreter: 'I want to learn to read and write. And I would like to do that in a language that I have never spoken.' It's amazing. And it makes me cry almost every time," she admitted.

Most of the new arrivals who are in need of literacy tutors are adults, but CMC still offers resources and assistance to children.

Because so many of the adults assessed so far are in need of literacy help, CMC decided to pause any future assessments to focus on making sure the new arrivals are first settled. After that, Dugger said CMC will assess something between 90 and 120 new arrivals by Jan. 1.

CMC is also partnering with Kirkwood Community College to help the new language learners. CMC offers free one-on-one lessons while Kirkwood offers group classes, also free of charge.

Dugger emphasized the benefit of the classes, but also of having a tutor to focus on one or two students. Tutors don't necessarily need to be in the Cedar Rapids area, as online and virtual lessons are available, but in-person always helps, according to Dugger.

“This is how we build our community. You become a friendly face in a crowd, you become just a friend, as a person moves about their week. Whether or not you see each other out in the community, they have somebody that they know is there for them," she said.

On a regular basis, Dugger said there are around 100 people on a waiting list for a tutor, not all from Afghanistan.

CMC welcomes more tutors to help address the expanded need and is hosting training sessions on the following days (tutors need only to attend one):
Monday, Jan. 10 5-7 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 11 9-11a.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 12 9-11a.m.
Thursday, Jan. 13 5-7 p.m.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines