On a recent Saturday morning in Nashville, Tennessee, students gathered at the Foreign Language Institute for English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction.
The students are fortunate. Their English language skills are already quite advanced. Some have a driver’s license and car, others have a friend or family member who can drive them to class.
That’s fortunate because the building where the Institute is located is in a typical American business park; it isn’t designed for pedestrians and there are no sidewalks.
Like many American cities, Nashville is a car town. It was built to accommodate drivers and their vehicles, not foot traffic or bicycles. That makes it difficult for the more than 1,200 refugees settled in Nashville each year, many of whom can’t drive and speak little or no English.
Many refugees who resettle in Nashville find lodging in a large apartment complex 20 kilometers from the institute’s classrooms, on the opposite side of town.
ESL students during a lesson inside their mobile classroom in Nashville, Tennessee. (Mike Osborne for VOA)
So the Foreign Language Institute decided that if its ESL students couldn’t get to the classroom, they would bring the ESL classroom to the students.
With the help of state and federal agencies, as well as interested local donors, the institute purchased a delivery van and converted the cargo area into a classroom. They call it “ESL-to-GO.” It travels the city, visiting communities where immigrants and refugees tend to congregate.
“A lot of the time they just couldn’t get to the classes," said Ashley Ekers, ESL-to-GO's curriculum coordinator. "It was too far for them to walk. They were unfamiliar with the bus system. It was just a barrier that a lot of them couldn’t get over.”
The institute tried other solutions. They initially held classes in a rented apartment. They also tried meeting in students’ homes. Both proved less than ideal.
“It’s very contingent on whether there’s space in the apartment for us," Ekers said. "So we thought, 'We want something that we can control and just bring to the refugees.' Our own space. We don’t have to rely on anyone else.”
Lulu Nhkum, a refugee from Burma, was among those who encouraged the institute to bring ESL classes directly to the community.
“They want to go to the ESL class but, especially in the winter, they are also working," she said. "For our people, they don’t need to travel. The truck is really helpful to our community.”
ESL-to-GO, which hit the road in May, has a waiting list. Students in their 70s have even signed up for the classes.
“I would be very hesitant probably at that age to attempt to learn a language, but they just believe that they can and they want the skills," Ekers said. "They’re very eager to learn.”
Ekers says the refugees she’s worked with are diligent students. They want to be independent and self-sufficient and they see learning English as the key to their success.