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Refugees settling in the United States, not surprisingly, come to the country with very little exposure to English as a primary language. Thusly, these refugees have the additional burden of learning a new language on top of the struggles of day-to-day living in a culture vastly different than their previous one.

What’s the problem?

According to statistics collected by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center in 2010, the vast majority of refugees coming to the United States are from only eight countries: Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Cuba, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea, respectively.

Of those eight countries, only Somalia and Eritrea show English as a spoken language, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

The actual proficiency of English speakers in these countries is additionally diminished by low literacy rates and lack of educational infrastructure. For refugees arriving in the United States, language stands as a great obstacle to success in many other areas of acclimation.

What’s being done to help?

Fortunately, there is work being done in Phoenix to help refugees overcome this struggle.

In a 2011 article in The Arizona Republic, a program in its third year serves to connect refugee students with their community by helping them learn English.

The Phoenix Union Refugee Summer English Language Institute focuses on refugee students from around the area, but there is still much work to be done. Refugee families often face an increasing divide between children who are given opportunities to learn and practice English and parents who may work in occupations that require little verbal communication.

“Coming to this country alone is traumatic. Some of them have never been to school,” Phoenix Union High School District administrative specialist Vanessa Jimenez said in the article.

Where do we go from here?

In order to create a cohesion both in the family and in the communities where refugee families are attempting to coalesce, more efforts must be made to teach English to the entire family unit.

While efforts to educate kids are helpful, children have little understanding of how to run the house and serving as a translator for the rest of the family can be stressful and socially intrusive.

Programs like the Phoenix Union Refugee Summer English Language Institute receive funding to function, but a force of volunteers who are ready, willing and able to teach refugee families a new language would be of great benefit to those families and the community. Before many other issues can be addressed, the language barrier must be torn down so that refugee families can make real progress in their acclimation to American life.

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