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Program helps refugees enhance English skills

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 9:48 a.m.

Nay Nwoi recalls a time when she was scared to answer the telephone.

The 30-year-old Whitehall mother of three had just moved to the United States after spending 10 years in a refugee camp in Thailand and struggled to understand what the person on the other end of the line was saying.

So, she made a habit of telling the caller that she didn't speak English and would hang up the phone on whomever was trying to reach her.

Hours of practice, and English classes from the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and Whitehall Public Library, have helped Nwoi master the English language. Now, she is much more comfortable performing those day-to-day tasks that in 2006 seemed like such a struggle.

“You need to talk on the phone to call the doctor or call the school and talk to the teacher. Sometimes we need to call the landlord if something is broken in the apartment,” Nwoi said. “It's important to speak English when you live in America. You need to speak to the children's teacher and to the neighbors, to say, ‘hi.'”

Nearly 20 refugees, most of whom live in the Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park, housing complex, gathered for 12 weeks, from March through May, at the Whitehall municipal building for an American Library Association funded program, “Talk Time @ Your Library.” The Whitehall Public Library program encouraged conversation and interaction between English as a Second Language students of all backgrounds.

The class also gave the refugees a chance to practice conversing in everyday situations, like going on a job interview or making a phone call. The refugees, many of whom already have learned the basics of the English language from other classes, also were able to delve deeper into the American culture and dialect.

“Our biggest goal, with all of our students, is for them to be self-sufficient and making them feel empowered,” said Jen Hayes, an English as a Second Language instructor, who taught the class alongside Susie Backscheider.

“It equips them with skills and tools that will make their life in the U.S. easier. We really wanted this to be a class that enhanced their existing knowledge.”

Refugees — with a presence in the Whitehall area since the 1990s — come mostly from Bhutan and Burma, while others moved here from Burundi, Sudan, Turkey, Bosnia, Russia and Iraq.

Many of those in the current influx of refugees at Whitehall Place have been in the U.S. anywhere from a few months to five years.

The latest U.S. Census showed that 13 percent of Whitehall's nearly 14,000 residents speak a foreign language at home.The “Talk Time” classes, funded through a $5,000 check from the “American Dream Starts @ Your Library” program and Whitehall library's first federal grant, included fun interactions between attendees. They played with beach balls and laughed during ice breakers as they lined up in order of their age, the spelling of their name or number of siblings they have.

At times, even this was confusing, but the smiles remained for the adults who ranged in age from the 20s to 60s.

Having the program at the library, too, was important. It's a place the refugees have become familiar with.

“It's a place where people come and learn and feel safe,” library director Paula Kelly said.

The library offers many programs for people of all ages, including the refugees, like the monthly Library Easy Access for Residents in Need bus that transports folks living in Whitehall Place to the neighborhood hub.

Thagi Mishra, 29, who moved to Whitehall in June 2011 after spending two years in Utah, said the most important part of the English classes for her have been learning the right accents and dialects.

Mishra, a native of Bhutan, spent several years in Nepal in the Timai refugee camp before moving to the United States in May 2009.

While in Nepal, Mishra attended Mahendra Morang, a college, where she studied to become a midwife.

When she learned that refugees were being moved to the United States, Mishra said, she began learning English in hopes that she too could have a career in America someday.

But the English she learned was British, therefore, Mishra said she still struggled at first when she came to the United States.

“I knew English a little bit, but I didn't know each and every definition,” said Mishra, who now works as a caregiver.

“From this class, it's helping me to learn more English and each and every spelling and pronunciation. I'm learning English in a better way.”

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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