'This is the best thing that could have happened to me.'
Refugees in Lancaster, Pa., are learning everyday and vocational English through a VESL program that is opening up new opportunities.
Upon arrival to the United States, Alejandro Perez-Alberteries, 24, already had construction experience. For one thing, he and a friend had built the boat that brought him and 25 other men and women safely to the U.S. from Cuba.
Alejandro Perez-Alberteries Photo: Luis Ortiz, CWS/Lancaster
Perez-Alberteries has some family in Miami, but he accepted Church World Service’s offer to help him resettle in Lancaster, Pa. There, he felt, he could start his own life. But his employment options in Lancaster were limited until he could learn to speak English.
Thanks to the CWS Immigration and Refugee Program Office in Lancaster, Perez-Alberteries quickly learned both everyday English and "vocational English" specific to construction and welding. Soon, he could say not only "Good morning" but also "Please, I need the wrench."
Perez-Alberteries was among eight newly arrived Cubans who invested every morning for a month in "Vocational English as a Second Language" (VESL), which offered not only vocabulary but also an orientation to the rules and regulations of the U.S. construction trade, along with instruction on how to complete a job application and do an interview in English.
In class, the students practiced their new vocabulary while building computer tables. Then six of them put their skills and new language learnings to work helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house in Ephrata, Pa.
"We have limited funds for hands-on experiences, so this was a great way to do it," said then-VESL Coordinator Luis Ortiz of CWS (now a case manager). "On the 'build' I encouraged them to speak as much English as they could" by grouping them with English-speaking volunteers.
Upon completion of the course and the ‘build,’ all eight VESL class graduates quickly found jobs.
"This is the best thing that could have happened to me, since arriving in this country," Perez-Alberteries said. "Since I only spoke Spanish, the class helped me a lot to improve the English I use in my workplace. It also helped me to be able to communicate with friends from work, and to know the names of the objects we use for work. It really helped me a lot by improving my knowledge and making me a better person and making me lose my fear of using English."
VESL classes sponsored by CWS-Lancaster are open to all refugees and Cuban/Haitian entrants resettled to the area. Along with immigration counseling and citizenship classes, they are among the “building blocks” CWS offers its clients to help them integrate fully into their new community.
CWS also offers vocational ESL to help prepare participants to apply for commercial drivers licenses and for certified nursing assistant (CNA) positions.