Fatuma Hussein, left, and Ethan Strimling talk about the literacy program today at a Lewiston press conference.
It's been about a dozen years since Somali refugees began settling in Lewiston. And Fatuma Hussein, of United Somali Women of Maine, says after all that time, one thing is still clear: "English is really a huge need. We have people who have been here for the last 10 years, and they're still learning the English language."
A new $40,000 grant from the Hudson Foundation and Walmart Foundation to establish a family literacy intiative could be a game-changer for the community, says Ethan Strimling. He's CEO of Portland-based LearningWorks, a non-profit that will set up the program.
LearningWorks already runs a family literacy program in Portland, and Strimling says the results are encouraging. "What we saw in one year of this program is that 90 percent of the people that we work with - 100 percent of the kids, 80 to 85 percent of the adults - all advanced a grade level or more," Strimling says.
Classes in Lewiston will be three days a week starting in January. The program is free, and there's space for 30 families. Eligibility is based on one criteria: "It's really simple - you need to increase your English skills and English speaking skills to get a job," says Teyonda Hall, the director of the Portland family literacy program.
Hall says incorporating an entire family into language classes is effective because it helps bridge the gap between home and school. "Families help one another - that's what they do. And so kids are trying to help their parents, parents are trying to help their kids."
Fatuma Hussein of United Somali Women of Maine says her hope is that as refugee families learn to speak proficient English they will lead more self-sufficient, enriching lives.
"You know, Lewiston doesn't have a lot of manufacturing companies - places that can hire a lot. And so, when you add that to English, and the barrier to English, getting a job is very limited," she says. "And so we have a very high unemployment rate, we really do."
Hussein says many refugees come to the U.S. with job skills, but need community help to overcome language barriers, and access jobs. Ethan Strimling of LearningWorks says most funding for English language classes comes from the private sector, and raising the necessary money is a constant challenge.
"If we want to help people build the American dream and help to create a great country like we have, we've got to provide language skills for people. It's fundamental," Strimling says. "Imagine all of us dropping in the middle of some country somewhere and all of a sudden having to start a new life and not even knowing the language. It's scary."
The $40,000 grant will fund the Lewiston Family Literacy Program for one year. Fatuma Hussein says she expects the need will extend far beyond that timeframe.
Photo: Patty Wight