World Relief Connect Language Center launches to meet the needs of Memphis immigrants and refugees

Memphis is home to Gabi Garcia, her husband and two young sons for the next two and a half years. Beyond that, the future is unclear — but Gabi is preparing for the best case scenario.

Her husband’s job relocated the family from Guadalajara, Jalisco in 2016 on a five-year work visa. She is hoping for a permanent move to the city and has been prepping for it as a student at the World Relief Connect Language Center.

“I have new friends. I like the city,” Garcia said. With the exception of a “racist experience” involving students targeting her son, the Collierville family is enjoying Greater Memphis. The nine-year-old told his mom students stacked lunch boxes in front of him at a lunch table while saying, “We don’t like Mexicans,” and “We are building a wall.”

“In general, my experience has been positive,” she said. “I would like to stay.”

World Relief Connect Language Center is a new addition to the suite of World Relief Memphis programs that assists refugees and immigrants in settling in the United States. Classes started in September 2018.

CLC is unique to Memphis as a branded program, but ESL programs exist in many other World Relief offices around the country,” said Connect Language Center education director Richard Dalton.

World Relief partners with local churches and communities in 20 U.S. cities and 20 countries around the world to provide families with economic, social and spiritual support services.

World Relief Memphis, in operation since 2012, has helped 1,175 new refugees and immigrants reconstruct their lives in Greater Memphis.

“We have employment services, helping families find their first jobs in the U.S., and we also have immigration legal services, which might help a family of any status adjust their status to get a green card or citizenship,” said World Relief Memphis office director PJ Moore.

“Maybe a family has been torn apart by war in the country they came here from, and they're trying to be reunited with their family. So we help them with that as well.”

A couple of years of community listening led to the launch of Connect Language Center. Surveys of World Relief Memphis clients revealed that families wanted more high-quality, affordable ESL learning options. The language learning increases the ease of navigating other programs offered at World Relief, such as securing housing in Memphis, applying for permanent residence, learning job skills and communicating in job interviews.

“We were also seeing the need from our employment department, the need for more intensive on-ramps, to the English language that are for life and work, crash courses in English for life,” Moore said.

Gabi is part of the pilot cycle of ESL courses offered at the World Relief Connect Language Center.

She is enrolled in English for Life and Work, a popular choice among students, according to Moore.

“The classes that really filled first and that we're focusing on this cycle are English for Life and Work and Speaking Well in the U.S.," he said. “Those are the Monday through Thursday morning and evening classes.” In both classes, instructors who are certified or have graduate degrees in teaching ESL, focus on language fluency and proficiency for everyday tasks and interactions.

During her first year in Memphis, Garcia took ESL classes at a few local churches. Those courses, she said, were helpful in learning the basics of English. The structure and flow of the World Relief Connect Language Center, which is housed at Redeemer Baptist Fellowship Church located at 5340 Quince, is increasing her ability to complete tasks like grocery shopping and hold fluid conversations at her job as a patient care provider at a local clinic.

Dalton said the East Memphis church is located in a prime area. “With easy access from the 240 loop and Poplar Avenue, it is approximately a 15-minute drive from numerous neighborhoods from which we are hoping to draw students, volunteers, and other community partners. We are hopeful that given this central location and inviting atmosphere, it will be an accessible place for newcomers and native-born Memphians to connect with one another.”

Garcia was a doctor in Mexico and is thinking about getting certified as a nurse practitioner or physician assistant.

“In this moment, I believe I know how to express my feelings,” she said of her fluency in English.

Beyond the language component, the Connect Language Center is set up to breed social connection among classmates and introduce students to life in Memphis. In addition to straightforward English, the four classes for 2019 include Friday Morning Book Club and ESL and Film for intermediate and advanced learners.

Moore said they plan to add opportunities for more “applied learning with field trips in the city and learning about Memphis history around music or race relations.”

The Connect Language Center recently hosted a fall cookout and potluck at Sea Isle Park as part of its comprehensive efforts to foster informed conversations and dismantle ignorance.

“It's the idea of creating a space for the different cultures of our city to come and connect,” Moore said. “Our students can practice their English and people also want them to share their culture with us. I've got so much to learn from them. I've lived a very kind of monolithic life. I think Memphis can benefit from that as well.”

Eighty-two students representing 17 countries are participating in the inaugural cycle that ends in December. Registration for the next cycle starts November 5.

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Read more articles by Brandi Hunter.

Brandi is a freelance journalist, brand writer and tech strategist based in Memphis, TN.