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Conversation group in Scranton helps refugees learn English

 The Albright Memorial Library in Scranton has hosted refugees and groups of volunteers who want to help them learn English since last year. An informal conversation group began in 2017 at the Lackawanna County Children's Library next door, but changed locations after the pandemic.
Tom Riese
The Albright Memorial Library in Scranton has hosted refugees and group of volunteers who want to help them learn English since last year. An informal conversation group began in 2017 at the Lackawanna County Children's Library next door, but changed locations after the pandemic.

Thirty-nine-year-old Zhamol Bakhali pulls up a map on his phone and points to an area highlighted in red.

“This – Russian,” he says. “This – Kherson, my mom’s house.”

He’s showing interpreter Dorian Butovich where his family’s home is on an app that tracks the war in Ukraine.

Much of the east and south of the map is red, indicating Russian control. Kherson was one of the first regions Russia invaded in Ukraine when the war began last February.

“Ukraine controls the main portion of Kherson, however on the right bank of the Dnipro [River], that’s where the Russians still occupy, and that's where they're shelling from,” says Bakhali, speaking through Butovich. Butovich grew up speaking Ukrainian with his family in New Jersey and agreed to interpret for an interview with WVIA News.

“Russians just moved into our house and that was it,” says Bakhali, sitting across the table from his mother, Bella. “If you don’t change your passport, your nationality, you lose your house. You lose everything.”

Bakhali’s family now wants to make the United States their permanent home.

Bakhali fled Ukraine at the start of the war with his mother, sister-in-law and her children.

“Every night with the bombs… they were terrified,” Butovich said, interpreting for Bella.

After first escaping to Turkey, they arrived in Scranton eight months ago. They wanted to be close to family members who moved to Northeast Pennsylvania in the early 2000s. Bakhali has siblings who are still in Ukraine and one older sister in Uzbekistan.

A place to learn

Bakhali is sitting next to Butovich at the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, where volunteers convene each week to teach English to refugees. Bakhali and his mom have been coming to the informal conversation group at the library for a few weeks now.

Marilyn Pryle, an English teacher at Abington Heights High School, started the conversation meetup with coworkers in 2017 after connecting with refugee resettlement organizations. Pryle knows Butovich through his daughter, now one of her students. Both Butovich and his daughter have raised funds for supplies to be sent to Ukraine, with Butovich himself delivering items to Poland to be brought into the embattled country.

“That’s what’s nice about this being a conversation group, instead of an official English language class where a teacher’s standing in front with a chalkboard and teaching everyone the same thing,” Pryle says. “We can really meet people where they are and help them with whatever they need in the moment.”

Even with a two year break due to the pandemic, Pryle says the conversation group volunteers have now worked with dozens of adults and families, mostly through referrals from the United Neighborhood Centers of NEPA, Catholic Social Services or word-of-mouth recommendations from the community.

“If I were going to add up all the families’ adults, we’d probably be at about 40," Pryle says, "and kids, I’d say an additional 30 to 40."

Adult participants range from beginners learning vocabulary and grammar to proficient English speakers who want to hone their skills or need a hand filling out documents.

“The majority of people we see are from the Congo or neighboring African countries,” Pryle says. She adds that Bakhali and his family are the first Ukrainians to join the group.

Some families bring their children. Student volunteers from Abington Heights entertain the kids with card games, coloring books or paper airplane-making workshops while their parents meet with instructors. On one visit, Bakhali brought his seven-year-old niece. Shy at first, she preferred to stay with the adults for the English lesson instead of playing with the other kids.

Katie Owens, also an English teacher at Abington Heights, began delivering meals to local refugee families during the pandemic. She started coming to the conversation group earlier this year.

Owens has met with Bakhali and his mom a few times for English lessons, including on Sunday. Other weeks she’s paired with whomever shows up.

Some participants never learned to read or write in their original language, Pryle says. On the other hand, the group has also seen a married couple who were both professors in their home country, Owens adds.

“You get a real mix of educated people," Owens says. "It is simply a language barrier." Some refugees who show up speak several languages, and just need help with their newest one, English.

One woman brought in census paperwork this week. In the past, volunteers helped another woman study for her driver’s permit.

Bakhali shows us a photo at his old job and his work ID, saying he attended two universities in Ukraine and worked for a government humanitarian organization. While he’s still improving his English, he’s working overnight shifts at a warehouse and training to become a commercial vehicle driver.

Not the first time

English isn’t Bakhali’s or his mom’s second language – it’s not even their third or fourth.

His mom, Bella, speaks six languages already. She says that’s partly because war has forced her out of her home before.

Bella said she mostly learned at home, because she had to.

“Wherever my family was, I learned,” she says. Originally from Kazakhstan, she later moved to Uzbekistan where she raised her children. Conflict there forced her to seek refuge in Ukraine.

When asked where she considers home, Bella sighs. Butovich says she doesn’t really have an answer.

“It’s hard for her to say,” he says. “She wants it here now. She wants it to be here.”

Pryle and other volunteers say they will keep meeting with refugees as long as they keep seeking a safe place in Northeast Pennsylvania.

To connect an adult or family with volunteers at the English conversation group, contact Marilyn Pryle: marilynpryle@gmail.com

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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