Learning English as a Key to Refugee Success

Learning English as a Key to Refugee Success

The following article is a modified excerpt of Kari Kutrich's thesis from her time in Northwest University's MAICD program.

Escaping war, extreme poverty, and persecution, more and more refugees and asylees are seeking a new life in the United States. According to Pew researchers Ruth Igielnik and Jens Manuel Krogstad, at least 3 million refugees have resettled in the United States since 1975, and Dahlia Bradshaw Lynn estimates that “by 2040 one in four Americans will be an immigrant” (132).

With these kinds of statistics, American cities, communities, and schools need to be prepared to host incoming refugees, thoughtfully considering what will best help them adapt to and thrive in a new location. English language learning (ELL) is an important response to this need. Currently, once refugees are resettled in the United States through agencies like World Relief, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, or Church World Service, they are immediately enrolled in an English class. Research shows that these classes are vital, as they both boost refugees’ capacity to integrate into their communities and pursue a better job or their previous occupation, and also provide them with better access to community resources. Ultimately, English classes play a vital role in the holistic well-being of refugees and the societies who welcome them. We should continue to prioritize providing this benefit to refugees, even—or especially—in the midst of the current political turmoil around immigration.

Refugee English Video

In the video “Coming to America: How Refugees Tackle English,” Sarah Zaman with Voice of America News explores the process of learning English through the eyes of adult refugees in the state of Maryland.

Refugee Integration

Integration into a new community is incredibly important for refugees arriving in the United States. After spending years or even decades in a refugee camp, many people experience loss of identity or belonging once they finally settle in a completely foreign country that they did not get to choose. Additionally, they can feel immense pressure to assimilate into the new culture, which Miroslav Volf describes in this way: “You can survive, even thrive, among us, if you become like us” (75).

In Anne Fadiman’s true story of Hmong refugees in California, a woman named Foua described what it was like leaving behind everything she had in Laos: “‘I miss having something that really belongs to me’” (105). That sense of ownership can be deeply tied to identity, and since refugees have given up physical property as well as family and friends, it can be difficult to find again. However, the nature of refugee status means that there is no direct way back to the old self. New components must be added to one’s identity, connecting oneself to the new culture. Language can be a bridge to integration into the community, and thus to the building and rehabilitation of identity and a sense of belonging.

Refugee Work Opportunities

ELL is also critical to help refugees find good jobs—which are necessary in themselves, and also contribute to identity. Namet Al Shamyani was an engineer in Baghdad, Iraq. Resettled in Michigan, he became frustrated with starting from the beginning and having to learn English before working again, when he had held a high-level position back at home. “‘I am happy now,’” Shamyani says, “‘but if I can find a job—because without [a] job, I cannot find myself’” (Wells). Refugees’ sense of identity is strongly connected to their strengths and skills, as well as how they spend their time. Being forced to start from scratch can mean many years of school or training before refugees can resume previous occupations, no matter how accomplished they were in their home country.

As far as outcomes go, “Immigrants who speak English proficiently earn an estimated 17 to 24 percent more than those who do not,” as those who do not are typically stuck in minimum wage jobs (Vu). Therefore, despite the difficulties or frustrations of learning a new language, English language acquisition is often necessary in order to move forward.

Holistic Well-Being for Families

What’s more, many ELL programs exist to help refugees pursue holistic well-being for themselves and their families. Without English skills, it could be difficult or even impossible to access the breadth of resources available to refugees as citizens in their new communities. Feng Hou and Morton Beiser write, “Lack of language compromises economic opportunity, access to social resources, and the opportunity to participate in the power structure of resettlement countries” (135). Lack of English skills adds to the inevitable loss of power and privilege refugees experience when starting over in a new country.

In addition to community access, “linguistic competence helps ensure well-being by avoiding intra-familial disruptions that can be brought about by children learning a new language more quickly than parents, and by preventing the isolation of elderly immigrants and refugees” (138). Dynamics of families from collectivist cultures are thrown off balance when entering an individualist country like the United States. Largely, refugees’ home cultures are more group-oriented, meaning that there is a high value for respect for elders, with a higher power distance,  along with high value placed on loyalty to the in-group (Hofstede 67-68, 91). Therefore, when children translate for their parents among other adults, the family power dynamic can shift drastically. ELL for adults (as well as children) can help mitigate some of these cultural crises and help families navigate in their new communities more easily.

Support for Refugee ELL

As a society, how can we work to ensure that these benefits for refugees are continued and strengthened? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Consider advocating on behalf of refugee resettlement agencies. In a time in which federal resources allocated to our local refugee resettlement agencies are increasingly tenuous, our national lawmakers need to understand that we as a society of voters choose to support refugee integration.
  2. Support refugee resettlement agencies financially and through volunteering. Many classes are in fact taught by volunteers.
  3. Form a supportive church or community partnership with your local refugee resettlement agency. These can welcome refugees and help them overcome barriers to English class attendance, as well as other obstacles to their success. World Relief currently partners with a number of churches, including Bethany Community Church in Seattle, to provide support teams to refugee families.

Good Neighbor Video

Bethany Community Church created a video recounting their “Good Neighbor Team” experience.

Without English classes, many refugees have a difficult time finding work or even meeting their neighbors. With English classes, refugees find community and have a better chance at fulfilling their goals and dreams for this new life. Early English intervention for refugees is beneficial not only for the well-being of adult refugees and their families, but also for the well-being of the entire refugee-receiving community.

Works Cited

Bethany Community Church, “Good Neighbor Team.” Vimeo, 1 2018,

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Hofstede, Geert, et al. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Hou, Feng and Morton Beiser. "Learning the Language of a New Country: A Ten-Year Study of English Acquisition by South-East Asian Refugees in Canada." International Migration, vol. 44, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 135-165. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1468-2435.2006.00358.x.

Igielnik, Ruth and Jens Manuel Krogstad. “Where refugees to the U.S. come from.” Pew Research Center, 3 Feb. 2017,

Lynn, Dahlia Bradshaw. “Forging Creative Partnerships : The Alliance of Public Health and Public Safety among Immigrant Populations.” Policy Studies Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, 2002, pp. 132–146., doi:10.1111/j.1541-0072.2002.tb02133.x.

“Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.” Lutheran Community Services, 2018, Accessed 5 December 2018.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “US Resettlement Agencies,” 2018, Accessed 5 December 2018.

Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace. Abingdon Press, 1996.

Vu, Cuc. “Advice for refugees: Keep the family together, learn English and get a job.” The Seattle Times, 27 Apr 2015, family-together-learn-english-and-get-a-job/.

Wells, Kate. “For refugees, a class to learn English and job skills.” Michigan Radio, 22 Sep. 2016,

World Relief. 2018, Accessed 5 December 2018.

Zaman, Sarah. “Coming to America: How Refugees Tackle English.” Voice of America, 9 April 2017,