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Volunteers in Colorado to Teach English to Immigrant Students

At the Intercambio Community Center in Longmont, Colorado, volunteer Deepa McCauley is teaching a dozen immigrants to talk about health in English

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The volunteer teachers and their students both say the meaningful conversations they have at their Intercambio classes build lasting community connections. Pixabay

It’s been said that to have another language is to possess a second soul. For immigrants to the U.S., that soul can be hard to get, because it’s often confusing and difficult to find English classes, and private lessons can be expensive.

In Colorado, an award-winning group called Intercambio trains volunteers to teach English as a second language to immigrant students from around the world. The lessons take place in classroom settings or in the immigrant’s home. In the process, volunteers and their “students” often become lasting friends, building meaningful connections and a deeper soul for the entire community.

At the Intercambio Community Center in Longmont, Colorado, volunteer Deepa McCauley is teaching a dozen immigrants to talk about health … in English.

“Running a fever doesn’t mean that you’re running,” she said. “Running a fever is the temperature. Yes, exactly. The thermometer moves.” The men and women in her class come from around the world.

McCauley teaches them English without speaking their native languages. She says it’s possible because the training materials are filled with helpful illustrations and because of the training she received from Intercambio. “I don’t have a teaching background, but Intercambio has great training classes,” she said.

Its own training materials

Intercambio’s Executive Director Lee Shainis says the group developed its training materials with the volunteers in mind.

“We found that a lot of the materials out there were not directly geared toward volunteer teachers, and we’ve had 5,000 volunteer teachers since we started, 18 years ago,” he said. “And volunteers are capable of doing an amazing job, but they also need something ready to go and also really practical and relevant.”

Back in the classroom, McCauley listens closely when her students speak up, looking for ways to make their conversations more meaningful and relevant. That includes a lesson in their textbooks about mental health.

McCauley reads from the textbook: “How’s he feeling?” she asks. “Depressed,” the class responds. But then a student from Peru takes a step away from the textbook lesson. She ventures to say that depression can come from discrimination.

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At the Intercambio Community Center in Longmont, Colorado, volunteer Deepa McCauley is teaching a dozen immigrants to talk about health in English. Pixabay

Rather than going back to the textbook right away, McCauley uses this moment to build a more meaningful connection for everyone. Students stop writing and look up and watch as McCauley responds:

“Yep. Depression can come from discrimination. My father, in India, he was an engineer. He came to America, he was collecting carts. In the grocery store. He was depressed.” “Changing life,” a woman from Peru says. “Big change in life,” McCauley responds.

Meaningful lessons, lasting difference

Intercambio’s Shainis says that making language lessons meaningful makes a lasting difference, thanks to volunteer teachers such as McCauley.

“Deepa is awesome. She was one of our many teachers who had zero experience as a volunteer teacher teaching English when she first came in, and we’ve seen huge advancements in her quality of teaching, in her quality of getting her students engaged.” The opportunity to help immigrants learn English in this way has a personal meaning for McCauley.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to teach English is because my parents were first generation immigrants who didn’t speak English, and they had a really hard time,” she said. “And they wouldn’t have had a hard time if they had a place like Intercambio.”

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Intercambio’s Shainis says that making language lessons meaningful makes a lasting difference, thanks to volunteer teachers such as McCauley. Pixabay

Back at the Intercambio classroom, there are many successes to celebrate, such as the advances of a student named Silvia, who came to the United States from Mexico.

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“When I left my country, I didn’t speak at all English. At all,” Sylvia said. “Sylvia was one of my very first students,” McCauley said. “She’s been here for how many years now? Two years. Now she has a job. She’s working. So she’s doing really well.”

The volunteer teachers and their students both say the meaningful conversations they have at their Intercambio classes build lasting community connections. (VOA)

Next Story

English-speaking ISIS Supporters Exploit Messaging App

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up

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The Telegram logo is seen on a screen of a smartphone in this illustration, April 13, 2018. VOA

English-speaking Islamic State supporters are refusing to give up on the terror group’s ability to remain a force in Syria and Iraq, according to a new study that examined their behavior on the Telegram instant messaging service.

The report, “Encrypted Extremism: Inside the English-Speaking Islamic State Ecosystem on Telegram,” released Thursday by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, looked at 636 pro-Islamic State channels and groups in the 16 months from June 2017 through October 2018.

It found that even as the terror group was losing ground in Syria and Iraq to U.S.-backed forces, and even as IS leadership was encouraging followers to start looking to progress in IS provinces elsewhere, English-speaking supporters turned to Telegram to reinforce their faith in the caliphate.

“These are supporters that like to fight uphill battles,” report co-author Bennet Clifford told VOA. “What supporters are trying to do when they’re engaging with this conversation is attempt to shift the narrative away from loss and provide justifications for it.”

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FILE – An Islamic State flag is seen in this photo illustration. VOA

At the same time, these English-speaking supporters sought to amplify their beliefs, supplementing official IS propaganda with user-generated content while also increasing the distribution of instructional material on how to carry out attacks.

“I think it’s part of an attempt in some cases to spin the narrative their way,” Clifford added.

Attraction of Telegram

IS supporters first started flocking to Telegram, an instant messaging service that promises speed and encryption for private communications, in 2015 as social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook began a crackdown aimed at Islamic State’s often violent and gory propaganda.

Since then, IS has been hooked by Telegram’s promise that it will not disclose user data to government officials and by the service’s ability to let supporters organize and share large files, including video.

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“No other platforms appear to have developed the same balance of features, user-friendliness, and basic security that could warrant a new switch,” the report said.

That ease of use has long worried counterterrorism officials, who have watched as IS has used the online ecosystem to help plan and carry out the November 2015 attacks in Paris, attacks on a Christmas market in Berlin in December 2016 and the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul just weeks later.

English-speaking facilitators

In those cases, the attackers appear to have been given instructions from IS officials in Syria and Iraq. But Telegram has given rise to several key English-speaking facilitators who have been operating on the periphery.

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FILE – Karen Aizha Hamidon, who allegedly worked to encourage several Indian militants last year to join the Islamic State group in the Middle East, is surrounded by reporters after attending a hearing at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 3, 2017. VOA

One of them, according to Clifford and co-author Helen Powell, was 36-year-old Karen Aizha Hamidon, who helped mobilize sympathizers from the United States to Singapore to join the terror group or its affiliates.

Hamidon, who was arrested by Philippine authorities in October 2017, has also been linked to efforts to establish an IS province in India.

Another key player, 34-year-old Ashraf al-Safoo, took a different approach before being arrested last October by the FBI in Chicago.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, al-Safoo was a key member of the Khattab Media Foundation, which used hacked social media accounts on platforms like Twitter to disseminate IS propaganda.

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“Much of the propaganda created and distributed by Khattab promotes violent jihad on behalf of ISIS and ISIS’s media office,” the Justice Department said in a statement using a different acronym for the militant group.

While both Hamidon and al-Safoo are now in custody, showing the ability of law enforcement to penetrate their Telegram operations, others are likely to replace them because of the ongoing need of Islamic State’s English-speaking supporters to communicate and find larger audiences.

“While there are a number of disadvantages for Islamic State supporters in the use of Telegram from a security perspective they’ll continue to do it because their balance of outreach and operational security,” Clifford said. “There’s not another alternative at this point in time.” (VOA)