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Finding Refuge: McLit prepares to help refugees learn American culture and language

Published: Oct. 28, 2021 at 7:01 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Dozens of people in Wausau are working to build the infrastructure needed to help support people who have fled their home countries in search of safety in central Wisconsin. It is a large web of resources; one major strand supporting the effort is the Marathon County Literacy Council, or McLit.

Connie Heidemann, McLit’s executive director, said she first learned that central Wisconsin was in the running to get a refugee resettlement agency office in January. She noted she was excited when the Ethiopian Community Development Council chose Wausau, an area that was outside of the 50-mile radius that would allow other resettlement agencies to place refugees. ECDC representatives have said one of the main reasons was because they saw Wausau as a welcoming community.

After the announcement this summer and federal confirmation this fall, the first round of refugees were tentatively scheduled to arrive around April, 2022; then the U.S. pulled out of the war in Afghanistan. Timelines changed daily as to when and how many refugees would be arriving in central Wisconsin, but ECDC urged the U.S. Department of State to give the Wausau area some time to get a director and office identified and set up and allow for the local infrastructure to get ready to support refugees. This week, ECDC’s newly announced director began working to set up the Wausau office. Numbers keep changing, but the latest estimates are that Wausau is expected to receive about 10 refugees before the end of the year, likely from Afghanistan.

“It’s going to take the village to make this work,” Heidemann said.

Heidemann has been working with the state and national literacy councils to get educational material for refugees and received guidance about how to set up learning environments. First United Methodist Church in Wausau donated rooms in its building for McLit to hold classes for refugees to allow McLit to have a space separate from its other clientele at its main office. The reason was to allow it to be a space where refugees can feel safe and comfortable to learn.

The Cultural Literacy Center, as it is being called, features two classrooms, a children’s education area, and a waiting area for refugees. Heidemann initially planned to have the classrooms designated for beginner and advanced English-language learners, but she said since it is likely that they will receive Afghan refugees they are going to have the rooms designated for men and women for cultural sensitivity.

The classrooms began as empty rooms with a board on one wall. As donations come in, Heidemann has added some chairs, a table, bookshelves, and decorations. She said they still need a lot of community donations to make them functional classrooms that can support several students. They also are relying on volunteers to help teach incoming refugees.

The education will go beyond just learning the alphabet, numbers, reading, speaking, and writing. With the U.S. being one of three countries in the world to use the imperial system of measurement as the national standard, and one of seven countries that use the Fahrenheit scale, those methods will also be taught. It will also include showing people how to work American appliances, which often are made differently in other countries, and take people on tours of grocery stores, the post office, and other foundational places to ensure they can do the basic things they need to do to function in American society.

“If you do get hurt or you need to call the police, or your house is on fire how do you do that,” Mary Testin, the lead volunteer tutor noted as a few things they will be touching on.

She and Heidemann also said the cultural experiences, as well as the trauma the individuals are coming from, will be central to how they teach the lessons. They noted it can be very stressful to learn a new language when their lives depend on it, let alone all of the new cultural lessons.

“I need to make sure this is a safe place, they can make mistakes and no one is going to jump on them and say why don’t you know this,” Testin said.

A group of volunteers met this week to go over what is expected of them and to brainstorm ideas about how to teach English-language learners, especially when the teacher does not know the student’s primary language.

“Where is she getting a job,” Kelly Dallmann, a volunteer, gave an example. “Getting a job, you have the word on the board, ‘getting,’ and then they look for the word and together they, they learn.”

“Like all of us, you know, if we feel safe and loved, we start to grow, we start to bloom,” Testin noted.

All of the volunteers at the meeting had either some experience teaching or had experience with immigration, but Heidemann said that is not necessary to become a tutor. She stated they are working on really basic skills, so if people know the basic alphabet and numeral system taught in American schools, they can tutor. Testin also said that even people who do not want to become tutors can help refugees with their language by introducing themselves to them, talking with them, and welcoming them.

For those who want to become a tutor or help in other ways to support refugees, click here.

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