When immigrants and refugees come to Nebraska, often their biggest hurdle is communicating. To help these immigrants acclimate to their new home, a literacy nonprofit is partnering with more companies to provide on-site instruction in English reading, speaking, and writing.
Before Po Shin and his mother immigrated to Lincoln, he lived in a poor village in southeastern Asia with no running water or electricity. Each day's ration of food was foraged by fishing and hunting in the nearby jungle.
Today, he works in metal fabrication at Total Manufacturing Company or TMCO, eats fast food for lunch, and has just enrolled his son Kenny in preschool.
Shin says adjusting to life to Nebraska's capital city has been easier once he started to learn English. In Myanmar, located between Bangladesh and Thailand, his family spoke only Burmese. He has had to work hard to learn both his job and basic English.
“When you move to a different country it is like you are just born. It doesn't matter how are you. Because if you live in that country, you have to know the rules, know the culture, know especially the languages,” Shin said.
Shin has been learning English between his work shifts in a weekly class taught by English language volunteer tutors. Clayton Naff, Lincoln Literacy executive director, says the on-site language classes developed from partnerships with several area companies that employ large numbers of immigrants and refugees.
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“Over the years we've come to realize that literacy is really a gateway skill to many other things and sometimes people need more than just the basic literacy help in order to be able to be fully productive members of our community and to gain the full benefits to opportunities that are out there,” Naff said.
Naff said his non-profit agency has tracked 72 different languages among those who have come in for help. The most common languages are Arabic and Spanish, but there are also large populations of Vietnamese, Iranian, Russian and Ukrainian speakers moving to Nebraska.
TMCO turned to Lincoln Literacy in 2013 when several refugee graduates began working at the south Haymarket facility.
Diane Temme Stinton is the chief administrative officer at TMCO. Stinton's father Roland started the company in 1974 with machines from Sears. The first employee was a deaf and mute young man who had no communication skills.
She said her dad trained him in basic machine operations and he worked there 30 years until retiring.
“From the beginning, we understood that communication wasn't really an obstacle—the be all end all—and we could really help people into careers even without that particular skill,” Stinton said.
She said about 40 percent of TMCO employees are foreign-born, hailing from 17 different countries, and speaking multiple languages.
“There are certain populations we have more of because of those refugee waves,” she said. “We do have immigrants from everywhere, from Eastern Europe, Kosovo, Central America, and South America. We have a colorful fruit basket here.”
Naff said Lincoln Literacy partners with three other major companies besides TMCO including Lincoln Industries, LI-COR Biosciences, and Bryan Health.
Mary Hoppe is an organization development consultant with Bryan Health. Hoppe said the collaboration with Lincoln Literacy started in 2015. Approximately 30-40 employees a year, many of whom work in food service and housekeeping, benefit from the English classes.
“Not only are they motivated to learn English to function better on the job, but they want to be better parents, grandparents, help with homework, just be able to fill out forms themselves,” Hoppe said. “There's a huge drive to be independent.”
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Hoppe said the goal is to help these immigrants fit into the community around them.
“Well we want them to participate,” Hoppe said. “And the more comfortable they are with the language, the more likely they are to have that all-important banter at the workplace.”
Hoppe said offering English lessons at work has made a difference to Nyabiey Riek from South Sudan. Riek works in Environmental Services. She has gained enough competence and confidence speaking English that she's no longer shy and withdrawn from her hospital co-workers.
“Yes, I fill out my form and reading my mail now,” Riek said. “Not like before.”
Naff said the tutors focus their work with English language learners or ELL on basic reading and writing skills, reducing accents and building vocabulary.
“I think the most common need is for English language learners to improve their fluency and improve their self-confidence,” Naff said.
Even though Lincoln Literacy is a small organization, Naff hopes to expand its partnerships with more companies and continue to train additional tutors. Future plans include easing the nursing shortage by developing a certified nursing aide course for English language learners.
Stinton with TMCO says the benefits of learning English extend well beyond the job. She believes the communication skills they gain really serve a wider function in society because knowing the language helps them integrate more completely into the community.
And that integration extends to family members. Stinton says the company tries to include families in annual events such as fun runs or potluck picnics – things that are foreign to many of these workers.
“Over time, we've all come to respect and really admire some of these people for their tenacity and their bravery and frankly the idea of having to start over in another country for all of us is really daunting, so there's a lot of respect here,” she said.
For Po Shin, he has made the most of his ability to learn English and earn a paycheck. His mother, wife and three small children depend on him to succeed here.
He is even teaching Stinton the Burmese alphabet and some common phrases. In a reversal of roles, that makes her the student, and Po the teacher
“I'm the luckiest person,” Shin said laughing. “I try to do my best.”