Tallahassee IRC launches Refugee Literacy Program for Congolese refugee youth

Their parents are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country marred by years of war, and are some of about 300 refugees from DR Congo and war-torn Syria to have resettled in the capital city since 2016.

Recently launched by the local International Rescue Committee chapter, the program’s aim is to help middle- and high-school refugee students, like 16-year-old Ruthie and Joyce, 14, learn English through homework help, socializing and community integration.

“Our approach is really to get them to be able to socialize in English — because that will help their teachers and help them make friendships,” said Una Bilic, local IRC director.

Yennifer Castillo, a Florida A&M student and IRC volunteer who mentors Ruthie and Joyce, helped the teenagers with introducing themselves as the new school year began.

“My name is Ruthie. I’m 16 years old. I’m from Zambia. I live in Tallahassee with my mom, dad, with my four brothers and one sister. I like to eat and to sing,” Ruthie said.

The IRC is looking for mentors to match with 60 to 75 local refugee youth. Mentors can take kids on field trips around town, such as to libraries and parks, to get to know the area and build social vocabulary. Background-checked volunteer mentors range from high school graduates to senior citizens.

“This program is going to function on the community’s support, and so we’re really looking for dedicated volunteers because their mission and their interaction in our program will forever change this refugee child’s life,” said Bilic.

Castillo, 21, said by being a mentor, she hopes to help the Congolese youth by “being their American friend… giving them whatever tools they need to perform just as well as their peers who have been in the U.S. all their lives,” she said. “I just want to make sure that they can come here and prosper.”

The need is great. Though Ruthie and Joyce were taught some English in the Zambian camp, many newcomers have little to no knowledge of the language and may be behind in school.

A subsequent effect of the literacy program is helping communication between student and teacher.

Godby High’s ESOL teacher Althea Valle said her refugee students struggle.

“It’s a clash of cultures, but even beyond cultures. Communication is mainly the No. 1 issue that these students have,” said Valle, who’s been teaching English as a Second Language for 18 years. “Because they stand out, they may be subject to bullying. It’s real and it affects the kids. What do kids want to do? They want to fit in. It doesn’t matter what culture you come from or what language you speak. You want to be accepted.”

Aside from flash cards and teaching them how to use the public bus system, Tommy Thompson, 63, takes two refugee brothers to the library, Maclay Gardens State Park and out to lunch.

Sisters Nseya "Ruthie" Ntambwe, 16, left, and Nsamba "Joyce" Kaikamba, 14, both Congolese refugees, write cooking-related vocabulary terms in their notebooks after learning them from Yennifer Castillo, a Florida A&M student and International Rescue Committee (IRC) volunteer, teaches language and culture the sisters at their home Friday, August 16, 2019.

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Sisters Nseya “Ruthie” Ntambwe, 16, left, and Nsamba “Joyce” Kaikamba, 14, both Congolese refugees, write cooking-related vocabulary terms in their notebooks after learning them from Yennifer Castillo, a Florida A&M student and International Rescue Committee (IRC) volunteer, teaches language and culture the sisters at their home Friday, August 16, 2019. (Photo: Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat)

“They’re absolutely just precious. They’re just gentle and appreciative and eager,” he said. “How could you not get excited about sharing when everything is interesting and exciting?”

For science class, Joyce had an assignment to write down her dreams and goals. Toward the end of their session, she asked Castillo to explain the difference between the two.

“(To be) a nurse is my dream,” Joyce said.

Ruthie’s dream is to be a lawyer.

“I just have to take a photo,” Castillo said, pulling out her phone. “I’m so proud of them.”

WANT TO HELP?

To volunteer, email Chase.Beasley@rescue.org.

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