Newsfeature: Coffee, tea and English, too! "ESL Coffee Hour" for refugees helps break seniors' social isolation

Social isolation is a problem that plagues many older refugees resettling to the United States. Inability to speak English especially limits their ability to go out by themselves for shopping or other errands.

Lee Conger serves coffee
Volunteer Lee Conger serves coffee to an IRIS client.
Photo: Debbie Decker

By Carol Fouke/CWS

Social isolation is a problem that plagues many older refugees resettling to the United States.  Inability to speak English especially limits their ability to go out by themselves for shopping or other errands.
"Refugee elders have a harder time learning English than their younger counterparts," said Debbie Decker, Community Resource Developer at Interfaith Refugee & Immigration Service (IRIS) in Los Angeles, Calif., a CWS Immigration and Refugee Program affiliate.
While fast-paced English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at a community college or other adult program suit younger refugees, who need to pick up English quickly so that they can get to work as soon as possible, older people tend to find the classes too stressful and drop out.
Furthermore, while new arrivals in their 60s still tend to try to find work, those in their 70s and older do not. 
"As a result, they remain dependent on their families for shopping and all social life, and get stuck sitting at home alone a lot while other family members are at work or school," Decker said.  "They need conversational English in order to get out of their boxes."
IRIS resolved to offer ESL instruction tailored to its older clients--but when? 

Most of IRIS's refugee clients are Iranian or Iraqi.  Of the 150 to 175 refugees who come on Fridays for a community food distribution, "at least two-thirds are seniors in their 70s or older.  And they are the first to arrive--especially those on their own and trying to make do with their Social Security checks.  They are sitting in our courtyard from 6:30 a.m. on, waiting for the food pantry to open at 10:15 a.m."
One reason the seniors arrive so early is they know that "if there is a limited quantity of something, we'll put it in the first bags," Decker said.  "For example, there might be 50 chickens, so they'll be in the first 50 bags."  She explained that the food is donated each week by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and the food truck arrives around 10 a.m.
The Rev. Catherine Wagar, IRIS's Interim Executive Director, proposed recruiting senior citizens to come serve the refugee seniors coffee and engage them in conversation. 
Decker reached out to St. Mark's Episcopal Church, many of whose younger members volunteer to bag and distribute donated food each Friday. 
"St. Mark's seniors got all excited," she said.  "They were wanting to volunteer at IRIS, but most opportunities--like setting up apartments or bagging groceries--were too physically taxing."
Ten seniors signed up to serve coffee and cookies donated by St. Mark's to their refugee counterparts each Friday.  Of course, they serve both seniors and non-seniors who line up early for food bags.
"Word of what we were doing spread and we now have members from Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a few non-church people volunteering for this program," Decker said.  While most are seniors, a few non-seniors also volunteer as "ESL Coffee Hour" servers.
"The volunteers are charming, with a gift of gab, and they are patient.  They circulate in the crowd, asking, 'Would you like coffee?  With cream?  With sugar?  Today the weather is very nice, don't you think?'"
This volunteer opportunity helps break the U.S.-born seniors' social isolation, too, Decker noted.  "If they weren't doing this, they'd be sitting at home watching TV."
Since the coffee and conversation was started in May, refugee elders' conversational skills have improved noticeably, Decker remarked.  "They are responding, 'Yes, I want cream, please.'  We hear the difference."
As a next step, IRIS plans to move the coffee and cookie service indoors and invite refugee elders into conversational circles about a variety of topics, including public transportation, prices, bargain shopping and using coupons, time, appointments, free places in the city they can visit like The Getty Center and the new Griffith Park Observatory, and family relationships.
"They have a lot more to learn, but we've begun to lay the groundwork," Decker said.


Stan Augustine serves coffee
Stan Augustine serves coffee to refugee elders.
Photo: Debbie Decker
One volunteer's testimony: Stan Augustine

"I consider it an honor to be a volunteer for the Interfaith Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Service (IRIS) and to serve forced migrants seeking safety in our country.
"It is true that economic self-sufficiency is one of their primary goals, but refugees entrusted to our care also need help easing the transition from dislocation to integration--economically and socially--within our local communities. The 'ESL Coffee Hour' is one way to help reinforce newly forming language skills essential for success in a new culture.
"Certainly, someone else would count the onions or fill the coffee pot if I was not there.  But I enjoy participating in this meaningful activity that is not unlike the time when the Lord's disciples were directed to distribute fish and bread to 5,000 people.  Serving coffee is a small thing, but offering a warm welcome to refugees is a tangible way of re-humanizing these so-called 'strangers.'''


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