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Computer programs help refugees resettle

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

A new community resource room, filled with 18 computers, is up and running as part of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement program in Syracuse.  Much of it involves literacy, key for refugees as they take steps to become a citizens of the United State.

Arnie Poltenson from Manlius is helping teach English to a refugee with limited knowledge of the English language, who has come to the new community resource room at the Catholic Youth Organization building on Syracuse's Northside.   "He's learning how the English alphabet works, so he's able to pronounce the word that he can see. So he can look at the word and make a very good pass at pronouncing it. So he's at the very beginnings of learning the language. He's like a very small child, a pre-literate child," said Poltenson.

While this particular refugee is at the beginning of the learning curve, others have a better understanding of the language, like Massamda Bekenda, from the Congo, who is fluent in several languages, including French, and what he calls British English.

"When I was in class I learned English, English British, not English American."

Bekenda says that's very different from American English when it comes to writing and pronunciations, so he's also logging on to the educational software installed on each of the 18 computers in the resource room. And it's that range of experience that makes these computer programs so vital, beyond the classroom English programs offered, says Kate Holmes, who's in charge of Volunteers for the Refugee Resettlement program.

"They may be in a class with people who have more English than they do. So they are already overwhelmed with everything that's going on as they are new to the city," said Holmes. "So to keep up with everyone else, they may not say, 'I have a question with that.' So on an English program that's computer-based, they can go at their own pace. If they have a question, they can ask a volunteer, and they can also replay it as many times as they want."

Holmes says it also helps these refugees hone computer skills. While many younger refugees are computer literate, some older ones, who spend an average of 17 years in refugee camps, have never maneuvered a mouse before.

"The older ones often don't know anything, even how to use the mouse. So I've found a program called 'Mouse Aerobics' to teach them simple use of the mouse. And I've had some students who have difficulty putting on the earphones, that's something they've never had to do before.  And once I show them once or twice they know how to do it. They have to sign in to the computer, but we have volunteers who help with each aspect of that," she said.

Eight hundred new refugees move to Syracuse every year, and Holmes says if they want to become citizens, programs offered in the community room are key, because there is a small window of opportunity to the road to citizenship. The community room is funded through a grant from the New York State Office for New Americans to help refugees and immigrants improve their English and prepare U.S. citizenship applications. And that fits in with Bekunda's dream, to find a job, start a family, and become an American.

"If God willing, I think my life become good in America."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.