By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic Newspaper – October 4, 2017

In the hopes of sharing and understanding the plight of adult refugees, Bishop John Noonan, a former teacher and principal, visited a pre-Literacy class offered by Catholic Charities of Central Florida.

“Students develop reading, writing, speaking and thinking skills through the use of games, songs, pictures and other activities,” said Debbie Cruz, director of comprehensive refugee services. The 8-week introductory course offers those learning English the added opportunity to acquire much needed skills for everyday living in America, from grocery shopping to reading road signs. “This class helps open them up to feeling more comfortable and part of their community integration.” She noted, “The more language skills they develop, the more they can share what they bring to the table – the cultural richness that they’re bringing that will make our community better. We are making them feel part of the body of Christ.”

The program began in October 2014 when staff learned English classes at local colleges were too advanced for many refugees who were not literate in their own language. Students often go through the course twice, then move on to a level one course, before moving into higher level courses offered in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. Many of the refugees are also assisted by volunteers who reinforce what has been learned.

Katherine Diaz, the pre-literacy program director, is quick to point out, “This process can take a long time depending on the individuals’ educational background and life experience, but it impacts the community in a huge way. When they arrive, they come without any knowledge. Our teachers help them get a library card and learn how to use the transportation and school system.”

Over the past year, 2,250 families have arrived through the Catholic Charities Resettlement Program and Comprehensive Refugee Program (sponsored by various state and national agencies); 330 of them have participated in this entry-level course.

“We are welcoming the stranger, as it says in Matthew,” said Carolina Toro, refugee resettlement coordinator. “They go from the client who walks in the door and won’t look at you because it’s a cultural thing to seeing them a month later looking at you, trying to get things from the vending machine because they’ve learned the money; saying good morning and goodbye and making the effort to learn their ABCs. I feel extremely proud of them.”