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Tucson, Arizona  Thursday, 7 February 2002

Picking up English, fitting in


David Sanders / Staff
Volunteer Mary, right, gives a hand to Somali native Mandeq Osman, who admits English is "hard."

Get to know your neighbor

* They spend their entire lives dreaming of life in America - only to arrive in the country and not know a single American.
"There are so many refugees that don't have American friends, who just stay in their little circle," said Cherie, a teacher at the Casas program.
Her suggestion? "Get out and meet your neighbor," she said, "especially if they're from a different culture. You'll be amazed at how much you learn."
How to help
* Do you have a skill? Chances are it can be put to good use working with refugees. Teach English, go shopping or just meet for coffee and help immigrants make the transition to a new life. Call 881-9451 for more information.

Refugees learn language of new home with help of church volunteers

By Karina Ioffee

Tucson is a long way from Mogadishu, Somalia, but for Mandeq Osman it's already home.

During the day, Osman, who has lived in the Old Pueblo since September 2000, works as a maid at the Westin La Paloma resort, making beds, changing sheets and sweeping floors.

But every Monday night she joins a group of fellow refugees - from countries including Iran, Iraq and Bosnia - to study the often complex and nonsensical language of the new world in which she lives.

"English is hard," she says with a wide grin. "But I like learning it."

Mildred is a volunteer who often brings Osman to the Midtown English class and visits with her during the week. Johnson noted the young woman's rapid progress.

"She's picked it up so fast," she said.

Mildred is one of the many volunteers from Casas since last April have held weekly classes for some of Tucson's most recent arrivals. Although the program is open to anyone who is learning English, most of the students who attend the classes at Davidson Elementary School, 3915 E. Fort Lowell Road, are political asylum seekers, granted special permission to enter the United States because of political instability or oppressive regimes in their home countries.

Hamida Afzalzai, for example, is from Baluchistan, a southeastern region of Iran. Dressed in jeans and a head scarf, she says she enjoys the freedom she has in the United States

"I wouldn't be allowed to wear jeans there," she said, referring to her former home.

Education, work opportunities and a variety of cultures are just some of the things that make this country great, said Afzalzai, 17, who attends Tuller Episcopal Church and works at the Shish Kebab House of Tucson. "My friends at school are Mexican and Asian," she said.

At another corner of the room, a circle of women has congregated around teacher Agi, who is explaining the fine intricacies of past tense. The women, many of them wearing head scarves, repeat in chorus, "I was; you were; he was." Some look genuinely confused. Agi, herself an immigrant from Hungary, slows down and explains for a second time.

Dale, Agi's husband, knows the challenges of learning another language: He started learning Hungarian when he married Agnes.

"It (learning English) is a lot of just rolling up your sleeves and getting into it," he said. "It's like sit-ups: It takes practice."

The program got started as a result of a trip several church members took to Albania in 1999, during the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo.

"We wanted direct involvement with what was going on over there," said Scott, a member of Casas. Church members stayed with Kosovar families and were amazed at their kindness and generosity, despite a war that was ravaging the country.

"There wasn't enough beds where we were staying, so people invited us into their already crowded homes," recalled Scott. "Here we were, piled up on mattresses next to Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and Dad and all the kids. It was amazing."

Today, what excites teachers the most is the progress their students have made. Kids can be heard conversing among themselves in English, while it takes their parents a bit longer. But either way, everyone who attends the weekly classes is on the right track.

"I've seen them go from hardly saying a thing to just jabbering away," Dale said.

* Contact Karina Ioffee at 434-4078 or kioffee@azstarnet.com.

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