Newly arriving immigrant communities in the United States face a great many obstacles in adjusting to their new country and the learning of a new language can be particularly challenging for immigrant women in abusive relationships. But, for women facing domestic violence, it is an important base skill needed on the road to other successes of adaptation and survival.
In their journeys toward self-sufficiency and justice, we know that English is an essential skill to help survivors navigate their way. Public benefits, police systems, as well as civil and criminal courts can be a lot easier to navigate if one is familiar with English. We know that despite the many language access laws passed to ensure that federal and local services are available to immigrants without English proficiency, the implementation is often inadequate. The goal of our Economic Empowerment program is to help women to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Thus, as we inform them about their rights in the U.S. and in New York or organize financial literacy classes and other workshops in this effort, we find that skills (such as resume-creation, job interviews, searching for housing, navigating public benefits), and day-to-day interactions (like communicating with staff at their children’s schools), can all benefit from a woman’s basic ability in English.
Sakhi has organized English as a Second Language (ESL) classes which began during this month and will conclude in December. Learning in a classroom setting is helpful but immersion in the language alongside consistent practice is important. We also find that it takes time and effort for women to gain economic and social stability and to form English-speaking networks. We see cases where survivors often do gain some knowledge of English but have few opportunities to strengthen their capabilities, receive constructive feedback, or practice and develop their skills (unless they have acquired a job that leads them in that direction). The opportunity can be made easier in a safe environment like the one provided by Sakhi.
The challenges that women face can be daunting. The anxiety and loss of self-esteem resulting from violence can be significant impediments. Staff at Sakhi are culturally aware and have language skills that allow them to more easily communicate with the women we serve. There is no doubt that coming to Sakhi for services can restore a sense of control to survivors and provide a safe, open environment. At the same time it is important for survivors to be able to leave the safety of Sakhi and be able to fend and advocate for themselves on their road to independence. Organizations like Sakhi, with trained social workers at hand who can address crises as they arise in the course of survivors’ learning are helpful to the process. Women who face abuse have often been forced to immigrate to the U.S. against their will, and thus do not have the freedom of living that many other migrants to the U.S. have. They do not have equal standing in their intimate relationships, so self sufficiency is not encouraged more less learning English unnecessary. They are thus faced with additional barriers that require extra support. The learning environment at Sakhi can be a safe environment that includes opportunities to overcome these barriers.
Sakhi is able to provide services due to the many volunteers and interns who keep the engine going, always willing to help. This class is being taught by a volunteer ESL TESOL certified instructor named Carl George, a graduate of Rennert International. He has worked on various education projects in New York City and is excited to be starting small group classes with the women at Sakhi. The overall goal is to develop better communication so that women can navigate in American society – whether the public assistance system, talking to someone on the street, ordering at a restaurant – and ultimately, enable them to achieve self-sufficiency and empowerment.