English lessons, friendship provided for women isolated in a new land

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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Hayat Bashir-Louise was pleased that she had understood the reading comprehension workbook story about a man, Bob Finn, who visited a doctor at the Hill Street medical clinic.

"First time I am reading this," said Bashir-Louise, a native of Syria who came to the United States from Egypt several months ago to live with her daughter's family in Ballwin. Bashir-Louise, who speaks Arabic and French, has permanent resident status and soon will take her citizenship test. She's being helped with her studies for the test and with reading and speaking English by Becky Mueller, a member of St. Clement of Rome Parish in Des Peres and a volunteer with the Immigrant and Refugee Women's Program in St. Louis.

Mueller praised Bashir-Louise for her progress, clapping and giving her a thumbs up at times. "Very nice, very good," Mueller said. "You've been practicing."

Bashir-Louise wrote answers to questions about the story. "Not good with the pencil," she said, referring to her handwriting.

Mueller said that her student knows U.S. history and details about the Constitution "backward and forward" after they worked together on material for the citizenship test. They're now working on a workbook they consider easy and another that's "challenging," as Bashir-Louise called it.

The Immigrant and Refugee Women's Program increases the independence and reduces the isolation of immigrant and refugees — it now also serves men — by teaching them basic English and practical living skills in their homes.

Since 1995, the program has helped women arriving in St. Louis from foreign countries to make a new life in the United States. Founded by Sister Elise Silvestri, SSND, it began with six Vietnamese students. Part of the Notre Dame Ministry Corporation from 1999 until 2006, it now is independent but continues to receive yearly support from the School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Province and other Catholic foundations.

Mueller moved to St. Louis about six years ago and was looking for an agency to join as a volunteer. She learned about the Immigrant and Refugee Women's Program on volunteers.com. It was the first time she's worked with refugees and immigrants and has found it rewarding. "I tell Hayat she teaches me as much about her culture as I teach her about English," the volunteer said.

Bashir-Louise gave Mueller a bowl of lentil soup and explained that the family has a vegetarian diet for three days in honor of a feast marking the Bible story of Jonah and the whale. They are Greek Orthodox but attended the Christian Coptic Orthodox Church while in Egypt, where she was a citizen for about 50 years, and they now attend St. Mary and St. Abraham Coptic Orthodox Church in St. Louis County. "One Jesus," Bashir-Louise said of the Christian faith.

Mueller has worked with two other students, one from Bangladesh who spoke Arabic and was learning English while staying home with her children. She later took a job at a nursing home where she could use her English. The second student came to St. Louis from Saudi Arabia when her husband attended medical school. Though she had young children, she felt isolated because of her lack of English. She returned to Saudi Arabia after becoming pregnant so she could be close to other family members.

"The typical students are women isolated in home with young children. You get to help them get immersed in the culture and learn English so they can get out," Mueller said.

While Bashir-Louise is atypical because she is older and is living with American citizens, she and Mueller have connected during their six months of twice-weekly get-togethers, with the native of Syria calling herself the number-one student.

Bashir-Louise learned French from Sacred Heart sisters in Syria. Her son, who now lives in Canada, studied with Jesuits and knows four languages. Her daughter in Ballwin and another daughter in Canada speak three languages.

She's happy to be in the United States, away from violence in the Middle East. "I love America. Freedom!" Bashir-Louise said.

Her sister fled to Germany as a refugee with other church members a year and a half ago. The husband of Bashir-Louise's niece was killed by ISIS forces in Syria just a few days ago, Bashir-Louise said. Because of the violence in Syria, Bashir-Louise is glad to see countries take refugees from Syria.

>> Priority

One of the 2017 public policy priorities of the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) is to welcome immigrants and refugees.

The Catholic Conference is the public policy agency of the state's bishops. In stating the priorities, the MCC points to the need to bear witness to the God-given human dignity of all immigrants and refugees, especially those displaced by war and persecution, reminding lawmakers of the right of people to migrate to other countries.

The MCC urges Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform and to permit refugees fleeing persecution to find a home in the U.S. after undergoing security clearances and being allowed to enter the country legally. On the state level, the MCC urges the General Assembly to preserve funding for resettlement programs that assist refugees in making America their new home.

>> An American tale

The story of a conservative Republican, Rich McKinless, whose outreach to a family in need is an unlikely twist on the way we look at Muslim refugees — as told in a video by his daughter, Ashley McKinless, associate editor at America Magazine. Visit www.stlouisreview.com/bVw. 

>> Volunteer opportunity

The Immigrant and Refugee Women's Program is seeking volunteers to
teach one hour, twice a week in a student's home. No prior teaching
experience is necessary, and lesson plans, materials, and training are
provided. Knowledge of a second language is not required since classes
are taught in English. Classes are scheduled around volunteers'
locations and availability. Financial contributions and supplies also
are sought.

For more information, call (314) 771-1104 or visit www.irwp.net
or @IRWP.STL on Facebook. Contributions can be sent to the Immigrant
and Refugee Women's Program, 3672 B Arsenal St., St. Louis, MO 63116.

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