Making a Difference in Rome: Our Students Teach English to Refugees

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Our Centers in Europe have always made a point to lend a hand in times of crisis—from IES Abroad Vienna’s volunteerism and donations during the height of Europe's refugee crisis to a new project within our Social Action Seminar at IES Abroad Rome.

In SL/SO 395: Social Action Seminar in Rome, our study abroad students engage in caused-related volunteer work, with the aim of becoming more socially engaged entrepreneurs, managers, and employees. This spring, a new project emerged—teaching English to refugees living in Rome, Italy.

How the New Project Came About

The creation of this new English teaching project for our Social Action Seminar students in Rome began with Professor Silvia Zanazzi’s course, PP/SO 240: Valuing Diversity? Italian Contemporary Immigration and Integration Politics.

teach english abroad

The Valuing Diversity? course focuses on how immigration works with and influences a local community. This past fall, students took a course-related excursion to a refugee center called, In Migrazione. While visiting the center, students participated in an Italian language class alongside refugees who were learning Italian. Our study abroad students and the refugees were both, in their own ways, learning to adapt to a new environment and culture, as well as learning a new language. While their backgrounds are vastly different, our students were at more or less the same level of Italian as the refugees, which created a nice connection point. The two groups played games together, and two weeks after our students visited In Migrazione, a group of the refugees came to the IES Abroad Rome Center to participate in one of the Valuing Diversity? class sessions.

Based on these interactions, Professor Zanazzi thought of creating a new project for the Social Action Seminar students that entailed teaching English language courses for the refugees. The refugees, who range in age from 25 to 45 years old, come from many different countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and several African countries. Many have left friends and family behind in their home country or have lost loved ones along the journey. As many of the refugees don’t know where they will end up in the future, they believe that English is a crucial skill for them to master in order to secure a better life.

teach english italy

Professor Zanazzi met with the In Migrazione staff and cultural mediators to better understand the needs of the refugees. In these discussions, both sides brainstormed about what the challenges might be of a project where students are teaching English to refugees when they don’t have a common language. Given that the IES Abroad students are not teachers and have no teacher training, the students involved must be very motivated and creative. For the refugees, the commitment of learning something, in addition to everything they are already doing to integrate in Italy, can be quite a challenge.


The New Project Begins

A weekly English course was officially offered to refugees living at In Migrazione. The refugees come to the IES Abroad Rome Center, accompanied by a cultural mediator to help them navigate the city and to help explain an activity in the lessons.

study abroad and volunteer

Shannon Boley (Hamilton College) and Georgina Cortinas (Trinity University) are participating in the Social Action Seminar and have embraced working with the refugees and teaching English as their project. Both students had a great challenge in front of them: how to teach English to refugees who only speak some Italian. Without Italian proficiency, Shannon and Georgina had to figure out how to explain concepts in the English language without a common language to help. They settled on a very interactive model where each lesson given is based on a very practical issue that the refugees might encounter while living in another country.

These practical issues include vital vocabulary, like language skills that are needed for going to the doctor or traveling in a new city or country. As part of this lesson, the Social Action Seminar students developed an interactive activity where one played the travel agent, while the refugees had to imagine their dream trip (many wished to go back to their home country!). The travel agent helped them walk through the steps of planning their dream trip. With this very practical approach, these English lessons can better serve the refugees as they are focused on real situations they might encounter.

refugees learning english

Another huge component of these lessons is making sure that the IES Abroad students are creating a fun and welcoming environment so the refugees feel comfortable and want to return each week to continue with their English lessons. After each lesson, the refugees have some time with their cultural mediators to give feedback. The refugee center then passes along the feedback and Professor Zanazzi discusses that feedback with the two students in their weekly seminar sessions.

Shannon shared, “Working with the refugee class has been my highlight of the semester. When people ask me what I’m doing in Rome, I say I am learning about the refugees in one class and teaching them in another. I have discovered a love of teaching and the classroom I didn’t know I had, and I couldn’t think of more inspiring students. Even though we don’t talk about their past often in the class (covering the subjunctive tense and vocabulary for a doctor’s visit takes up a lot of time!) I love hearing small details about their lives. One student has 13 siblings, all back in Pakistan, while another took his journey alone when he was 16, and has been in Italy for nearly three years. As I eat pasta and gelato and experience the luxury of Rome’s dolce vita, my colleague and I are able to experience another, often neglected part of Rome: the refugee crisis. And the satisfaction of teaching our mixed ability classroom, hearing them laugh, say basic conversations, and even create goal sheets for their lives in Rome, has been better than any carbonara for me.”

Study abroad in Rome and enroll in our Social Action Seminar!

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