|Hayfa Dalali teaches an ESL class at Cuyamaca College|
A pilot program for recent Iraqi immigrants that teaches English in the context of office work is being offered at Cuyamaca College through a partnership between the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District and San Diego County.
The “Working English” program is designed for Iraqi immigrants with limited English who want to improve their language skills so they can find office-related work. Twenty-eight students are participating in the first class sessions that began February 6 and will continue until mid-June. Two other classes are scheduled to begin in June and run through December.
For students like Sahar Hussein, the classes are a pathway to help find a job in her new home. Hussein and her husband worked as engineers in Iraq, and came to El Cajon with their four children in August 2011 after fleeing the violence in their native country.
“I have a chance here to begin again,” said Hussein, who said she would like to be a teacher. “It’s a very good opportunity.”
The classes came about as the result of meetings held by county Supervisor Dianne Jacob to discuss the impact of Iraqi immigrants on East County, particularly its schools, hospitals and social service agencies. More than 8,300 Iraqi refugees have arrived in San Diego County in the past five years, more than any other place else in the United States.
The recent immigrants have turned to the East County community college district for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to help them prepare for jobs and maintain their government assistance. However, because of state budget cuts, Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges have been forced to reduce the number of ESL classes they offer at a time when they are needed more than ever before.
Officials with the county Health and Human Services Agency agreed to fund the ESL classes for recent Iraqi immigrants who are receiving assistance through CalWORKS, while the college district oversees the Working English program, which includes a case manager to help ensure their educational success.
“East County agencies have come together to cope with the large number of refugees that have escaped harrowing conditions abroad,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “I commend the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District for its commitment to this issue. With many agencies at the table, we have the attention of the federal government and we’re working hard to help this population become self-sufficient.”
The classes are held for 5-½ hours per day, five days a week, for five months. Jennifer Lewis, interim dean of instruction for Cuyamaca College, said the classes are designed to immerse students in the language of work, while the schedule is meant to prepare them for entering the workforce.
“This classroom is their office,” Lewis said. “We’re preparing them to be successful in the workforce.”
The college district has long been a leader in East County in raising awareness of the impact and needs of recent Iraqi immigrants. In September 2009, the district hosted a daylong discussion that was attended by more than 200 people on issues related to the increase in Iraqi immigrants. In summer 2011, the district partnered with St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral to offer classes teaching recent immigrants on how to prepare for college and the workforce.
“Like so many others before them, these immigrants came to the United States to find a better life,” said Cindy L. Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. “It’s our goal to do everything we can to help them find work, to better themselves, and to become contributing members of our society.”