Non-profit provides English language classes for woman refugees in Alexandria

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - For a few hours every Monday through Thursday, in an undisclosed classroom, a group of fifteen women gather to learn the English language.

They are refugees living in Northern Virginia.

Coming from different walks of life, the group was illiterate. They could not read or write.

A few short months changed that.

"When they came here they didn’t know anything, they couldn’t write their names, they didn’t know the spelling of their names," says Alia Ameri, a co-teacher.

The group is the first class ever with the non-profit Global Center for Refugee Education and Science.

Just a few months ago, the class did not exist. A few years ago, GCRES founders David and Lyla Combs had different jobs.

"We really didn’t feel like we were making an impact in the world," says David.

They say everything changed on September 2nd, 2015, the day photos of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi went viral around the world.

He was pictured lying face down on a beach in Turkey, one of the thousands to die during the current migrations to Europe because of conflict.

The Combs' say something clicked.

"That was the day that my son learned to walk," says Lyla. "I realized oh, there’s got to be something more I could do."

Starting the non-profit from scratch, the Combs expected the first class to be an eight-week pilot program. Then the city of Alexandria's Workforce Development Center caught wind of what they were doing.

Through the city, they got the recruitment and some additional funding, and went right into a 14-week program.

"When it comes to the actual English-language training, there is a substantial gap in the amount of training classes that are out there, that give you a real intensive, really immersive experience," says David. "There’s a few, but it certainly doesn’t take the need."

Lyla and her co-teacher, Ameri, spent hours with the class, starting with the very basics.

On a normal day, they break into small groups and role play. Every week, they also incorporate a field trip, to put their new skills into practice.

Among the trips, they went to a grocery store, went shopping for real clothes, learned to take public transportation, and met with law enforcement.

"I have seen them from not being able to hold a pencil some of them, but also to the point where they have an exchange with the cashier and then being able to independently buy things and check prices on their calculators," says Lyla.

GCRES uses data analytics and certain scientific approaches to design their programs and then measure their effectiveness.

The Combs' say they trusted their plan, but never expected the level of motivation and passion the class would bring.

"They  work so hard and ask for more homework," says Lyla.

Ameri translated for some of the women, when asked about their feelings on the program.

"In Afghanistan, we couldn’t go outside, and especially women, it was not safe," she said. "We can improve here, we can do something here, because in Afghanistan we couldn’t do these things. We want to learn English because in the future we want to have some jobs to work with our husbands."

Starting in January, the group moved on to the next level of learning the English language.

The Combs' hope, like the name, GCRES becomes global, providing the services they do now to several classes at a time in places in all over the world.

For now, their focus remains in Alexandria.

For information on how you can help volunteer your time or help fund GCRES, visit their website.