“My name is Fatema. I am 37 years old, and I am from Afghanistan.” Fatema wears a floral print blouse and a black headscarf. She has just finished that day’s Vocational English class, which meets Monday through Thursday for four-hour sessions at World Relief Sacramento.
An interpreter is present, and when asked to tell her story, Fatema switches from hesitant English to quick Dari. In some parts of Afghanistan, she explains, arranged marriages are common. Fatema was twelve when she met and married her husband, who was many years her senior. After they married, the couple left Afghanistan and moved to Iran for safety. Together they had a son. Her expression, throughout the telling, remains serious and guarded. Life, she says, was difficult.
After twelve years of marriage, she divorced her husband and returned to Afghanistan. A young divorcee with a child in tow, Fatema received at best a chilly reception. Not long after returning home, her husband declared that he wanted custody of their son. Fatema knew the court would side with the child’s father; so again, she left home, this time fleeing with her son to Turkey.
She spent several years in Turkey, struggling to survive in a huge, foreign city. In 2015, she and her son received their refugee visas. They were to be resettled Sacramento, CA through World Relief. Upon arrival, Fatema was greeted by her assigned caseworker, a man named Majid. Majid and other World Relief staff helped Fatema during her first 90 days in Sacramento with housing, social security card applications, medical appointments, and school enrollment for her son. With all of their basic needs met, it was time for Fatema to find work. For several years, she did all sorts of jobs, mostly in restaurants and hotels as a dishwasher or housekeeper.
She wanted more. Her goal was to run a day care out of her home. In order to do so, however, she needed to learn English. World Relief partnered with LONA, a San Francisco based non-profit, to help cover Fatema’s expenses for six months so she could attend World Relief’s ten week Vocational English class. On her first day, she was greeted by a familiar face. Majid, once her caseworker, was now her ESL teacher.
In addition to being determined, Fatema is generous and constantly thinking of others. She wants to set up a day care in her home and show other women how to do the same. The daycare, however, is just the beginning. Her dream, she says, would be to build a community center where Afghan and Arabic women can learn English, make crafts, share skills and ultimately sell what they make. Too expensive, she said, waving the dream away, but her dream sparked an idea.
While World Relief does not have a community center, it does have a spare apartment in a nearby apartment complex. The furnished apartment serves as temporary housing for families. In June, World Relief launched two pilot programs designed for women, using the apartment as a teaching and meeting space. One meets on Tuesdays and Fridays, where the women gather for social activities and for a brief ESL lesson. Another is an ESL class that meets Mondays and Wednesdays.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, the sparsely furnished apartment transforms into a lively gathering space that feels homey and warm with 10 to 15 Afghan women and several World Relief staff and volunteers present. So far, the group has made earrings, gone on a trip to the fabric store, baked American and Afghan cookies, and started a macramé project. They have learned to spell their names and say their birthdays in English, and how to call 911 for emergencies. During the fourth week, the program coordinator asked the group what projects and ESL lessons they had liked. A woman who during the first few meetings had barely spoken said that she liked knowing how to spell her name and address. Another woman said, “I like everyone here.” Another, more exuberant member of the group agreed, and added, “I like everything!”
On Mondays and Wednesdays, the group is smaller, fitting on the apartment’s two sectionals. The ESL instructors demonstrate greetings the class has learned with an inflatable ball. “How are you?” the instructor asks the co-instructor and throws her the ball. “I’m fine, how are you?” the co-instructor says, tossing the ball back. They repeat this simple exchange several times before the instructor moves on to the next greeting. “How are you?” tossing the ball to the co-teacher, who with dramatic flourish, answers, “I’m tired. How are you?” With equal gusto, the teacher says, “I’m tired” and slumps in her seat. After observing for several minutes, the women join in the exercise, some following the instructors’ leads and slumping or straining their voices when they catch the ball and answer, “I’m tired. How are you?”
There are not whiteboards, no handouts, no pencils or notebooks. The curriculum is designed for pre-literate learners. “We move on,” the instructor explains, “When the group is ready.” The students, not the teachers, set the pace. In the first week of class, a very pregnant woman joined them. The instructors assumed she would not be able to finish the course, and after the second week, she gave birth to her son. Traditionally, Afghan women stay home to be taken care of by their families for forty days after giving birth. However, the woman came back with her son to class just ten days after his birth. She wanted to resume learning English as soon as she could. Her return gave the group a chance to learn a multi-syllabic tongue twister of a word: “Con-gra-tu-la-tions!”
World Relief hopes to continue to build on Fatema’s dream and serve more women across Sacramento County. Once these pilots wrap up, they hope to launch several more in different refugee dense apartment complexes. They have started a crowdfunding campaign to help fund future efforts. As Fatema puts it, all women should have the chance to learn, the chance to work if they want to, the chance to be self-sufficient in their new country.