Using 'study circles' to tackle challenges of refugee settlements

Alma Gaul

Pinned to a bulletin board in the management office of the former Arsenal Courts public housing complex in Rock Island - now known as Century Woods - is a notice to tenants that is written in six languages.

One is French, using the same alphabet as English. The others use characters of Arabic, Burmese, a Burmese dialect, Nepali and Swahili.

While 10 years ago Century Woods had a predominately African-American population, today more than half the residents are refugees from Africa and Asia, Kimberly Steele, district manager for the apartment complex, said. "It has changed a lot," she said. The newcomers have fled their homelands because of war or persecution and arrived within the past several years in surprising numbers to live - legally - in the Illinois Quad-Cities.

Their resettlement is coordinated by the U.S. State Department, working with nongovernmental agencies; in the Quad-Cities, that agency is World Relief Inc., based in Moline.

Many of the refugees have found jobs at Tyson Foods, a meat processing plant in Joslin, Ill., and Jumer's Casino & Hotel in Rock Island, although the job market has tightened in the past two years. The refugees' children attend public schools.

Their presence brings challenges, for them and for the cities and school districts in which they live.

Enrollment in English Language Learning classes in the Rock Island-Milan School District, for example, has increased 988 percent in 10 years, going from about 45 to 490 today, said Kay Ingham, the assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services.

Neighborhoods, churches, businesses and social service agencies are affected as well.

"I think the whole wave of immigration that has occurred here is a huge deluge, and we're all feeling overwhelmed," said Brandon Bufe, who teaches adult English classes to refugees for Black Hawk College.

"DHS (the Illinois Department of Human Services), the churches, the school district, the whole community" is affected, he said. "God bless them for trying to take this on."

The refugees face steep obstacles, too. They have to learn everything - not just language, but also daily living skills that, while second nature to Americans, are a mystery to people who have lived for years in tin or thatched huts in refugee camps.

"I don't know how to do the laundry, the lights, how to cook," said Tika Bista, 23, originally from Bhutan, a landlocked country in Asia at the east end of the Himalayan Mountains.

"It is a big change. That is why it is very difficult. I don't know how to ride the bus, I don't know how to use the toilet, I don't know how to get rice, I don't know how to use food stamps. I am a newborn baby in America."

The refugees also are poor, and many of them never learned to read or write in their native language.

Bista, who lives in Rock Island with his parents, two brothers and a sister, is ahead of many others because he lived in a camp with a school that taught English. He has a job teaching English and living skills at Broadway Presbyterian Church in Rock Island, one of several Quad-City churches that has stepped up to help refugees.

How many, where from?

World Relief welcomed 1,067 refugees to the Quad-Cities between August 1999 and mid-April, with 12 more expected by the end of the month.

Some of those have moved away, but an unknown number of "secondary migrants" have moved in - and continue to move in - from other places where they settled first, said Amy Rowell, the director of the agency's Moline office.

"It is possible there are two secondary migrant families moving to the community for every one family World Relief is initially resettling," she added.

Most of the current refugees are natives of Bhutan, Burma (now called Myanmar) and a half-dozen African countries that include Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan and Liberia, she said.

Most did not come directly from their homeland but rather from a refugee camp in an intermediary country. Some of the people originally from Bhutan, for example, have lived for more than 20 years at a camp in Nepal.

Their ages have ranged from 6 months to 82 years.

Most refugees are resettled in the Illinois Quad-Cities because World Relief traditionally has worked with Illinois, Rowell said. Recently, though, the agency also has worked with Iowa, so a few refugees have been settled in Scott County.

Challenge to schools

Ten years ago, the majority of English Language Learning students in the Rock Island-Milan School District were Spanish-speaking.

Today, the nearly 500 students enrolled speak one or more of about 28 languages and dialects, Ingham said. The most common are a Burmese dialect and an African language.

"It's a challenge, there's no doubt about it," school district Superintendent Mike Oberhaus said. "We do the best we can with the resources we have. There's only so much we can do."

On any given day, three families might show up at a school to say they want to enroll a child or children.

"It happens regularly. It happens all the time," Oberhaus said.

As the district responds to the educational needs of these new students, it spends money for teachers and programs. The district's 2010-11 spending for bilingual education is $1.35 million, he said.

At a time when budgets are so very tight and extracurriculars such as orchestra, swimming and golf are being considered for cuts, Oberhaus acknowledges that there is resentment among some people in the community over the amount spent on refugees.

But schools are mandated, first of all, to teach their students, he said.

And within a year from the time a refugee (or any student) enrolls, they will take the standardized tests by which a school is judged under the federal No Child Left Behind act. So, if a student is enrolled during May of a given year, they will be tested the following March, and those tests will be in written English, he explained.

While young people are adept at picking up language, particularly the spoken word, becoming proficient in reading and writing English takes much longer, he said.

The lag hurts the students when they do not learn, and it hurts the district when that factor pulls down test scores.

Challenge to neighborhoods

Changes in neighborhoods also have created some tension. People who have lived in west Rock Island a long time find that, all of a sudden, it is a different place.

The city has taken the unprecedented step of organizing "study circles" through its Neighborhood Partners organization that are meeting now in hopes of finding good ways to integrate the growing refugee population.

About 125 people divided into groups of eight are meeting five times this month and next, and on May 19 there will be an "action forum" in which each group will present plans for ways to address problems/concerns.

The model for the study circles comes from Everyday Democracy, a Connecticut-based group that was founded in 1989 by The Paul J. Aicher Foundation. It is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has worked with more than 600 communities on many public issues.

The idea for the circles grew out of a meeting in July when Neighborhood Partners hosted a gathering of parents of elementary school students from Century Woods to discuss how their children safely would navigate busy streets to get to school once the boundaries changed.

Century Woods kids normally would have gone to the Rock Island Academy (formerly Hawthorne-Irving Elementary School), but because enrollment had grown so much, a percentage of them were going to attend Frances Willard Elementary.

"At the first meeting, the language difficulty was a real challenge," city planner Jill Doak said. "Three-fourths of the 50 people there couldn't speak English. It opened our eyes to how rapidly things have changed."

The circles will meet on consecutive weeks through May 13.

Among the discussion topics are the types of services available to refugees (and for how long), gaps in the services and what the city might do to help, said Alan Carmen, the city's planning and redevelopment administrator.

Another goal is to get the new residents more comfortable with participating in, and contributing to, their new community so they become an asset for Rock Island, he said.

"What will be the result (of the study circles)?" Doak said. "I don't know. What do we have here? What should we do? It's a complicated issue for the community. ... and a large segment (of the community) is fairly unaware of it."

The population is relatively segregated, so unless you live at Century Woods, work at Tyson or have a child at the Rock Island Academy, you might not realize how many refugees are here.

Except maybe while shopping.

"All you have to do is go to WalMart. It's like the United Nations," one Moline resident said.

Learning to fish

Some people who work with refugees grow to feel protective of them. They know the ill feelings that can be found in the Quad-Cities and nationally.

"You hear, ‘They are taking away our jobs,' " Bufe said. "But how many people want to work at Tyson? How many people want to be at (a hotel), down on their knees, scrubbing? Let's be honest. Let's be fair."

On the other hand, he has encountered refugees for whom the time spent in camps has been a deterrent to learning how to do things for themselves.

Some have "learned helplessness," he said. "They've been given a fish, not told how to fish.

"The immigrant issue is far more complicated than people are willing to talk about."

May 18, 2011

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