Refugee Orientation: Libraries and Learning

August 8, 2016

Elena Gold, a librarian at the Belmont branch, talks with the help of an interpreter to a new resident from Iraq.

Midland Library hosted the fifth class in a 10-part series introducing newly-arrived refugees to all aspects of life in the United States. The class focused on enrolling kids in school, understanding the educational system and free services offered at the region’s public libraries.

Kids at Schools

Megan Corning, a volunteer with  People-Places-Things passed out a list of 10 things parents need to know about education in the U.S. For example, kids ages 6 to 17 must attend school and should only miss class for good reasons, such as an illness. Grades are important in American schools, where students demonstrate their knowledge by asking questions and participating in class. It’s common in the United States -- and important -- for parents to communicate with the teacher, she said.

The School Assistance for Refugee Newcomers program helps families enroll their children enroll in school, and introducing parents to their children's teachers. A bicultural and bilingual specialist will assist parents with school registrations and extracurricular activities.

Those specialists also assist students with first day of school orientation, connect students to after school and academic support programs, monitor student progress and act as cultural brokers between families and school faculty/staff.

Corning asked participants whether children were required to go to school in their home countries. A family from Iraq said children were required to go to school from the age of 6 to 12. In Somalia and China, children were required to go to school from the age of 6 to 18, participants said. But in Burma and Nepal, school was optional.

“Since children were not required to go to school, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school because my parents didn’t have the money to pay for my school tuition and we had to flee away from Burmese soldiers,” said Meh Taw, a refugee from Burma. “Until now, I don’t know how to read and write my own language.”


Learning English

A woman from Nepal asked Catholic Charities staffer Zadok Taylor if local libraries offered classes for adults who wanted to learn English. Taylor explained that there are many free and low-cost ESL classes in Portland.

The libraries provide space for free ESL classes taught by People-Places-Things. Those classes are always free. The Portland ESL Network maintains an undated list of English classes in the Portland metro region from these and other agencies.

The libraries also host more relaxed English conversation groups to give newcomer a chance to practice what they learn in the more traditional classes.

Library Services

English classes are just one of the many services families can access through the libraries, said  Elena Gold, a librarian at the Belmont branch, who came to talk about library services.

“I think it’s most important to tell them that the library belongs to them, and they are welcome here,” she said. “We can help them in any way that we can. And we want to help.”

The Khanal family, from Nepal, sat down with a volunteer from Catholic Charities

Multnomah County have 19 libraries and they are welcome to go to any of the library, said Gold. The libraries also have staffs who speak Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Spanish and Somali. If there aren’t any staff that speak the language that they need, all they need to do is tell the staff the language they speak and the staff will help them to call an interpreter to communicate through phone.

First, they need to create a library card in order for them to have the access to the computer or rent something in the library which they are free. To get a library card, they can either do it online or go to any location to fill out the application. But if they do it online, they will need to pick up the library card at the branch. The libraries also have the application in Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and Spanish.

“It’s very important to tell the newcomers about the library in the United States,” said Toan Lam, a regional librarian who speaks Chinese. “The library is a public organization, and a good learning place with different resources and languages. That’s why we really like to welcome everyone here.”

Lam detailed various services that the new residents could access through the county’s 19 branches. explained to the refugees about what can they do, what they have in the library and what kind of services the library has offer.

Gold asked the class participants what libraries are like in their home country.

Buthainah Alzubaida arrived with her family from Iraq two weeks ago. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke about the services her kids can now access.

“We are missing that back in our country such as children’s department, the computer, internet, wifi,” she said. “I really like the children's department here. It’s really wonderful. I feel regretful for my children because they couldn’t enjoy this kind of thing when they were younger.”