Volunteer Teachers Help Refugees Learn English As They Rebuild Lives In Wichita

Dec 23, 2016

Kansas was recently ranked one of the top states in the country for number of people who do volunteer work. All this week, the KMUW News team is looking at some local volunteers who are making a difference here in Wichita.


The International Rescue Committee has been helping to resettle and rebuild the lives of refugees in Wichita since 2011.

A team of about 65 volunteers helps them adjust to their new homes, find jobs and learn English.

“I really get something from helping people, working with people, empowering people in a new language where they can do things,” says Pete Krause, of the IRC’s volunteer English teachers.

Pete Krause, right, with fellow volunteer teacher Haist, points to the board as the class practices writing out mailing addresses.
Haist speaks with one of about 18 students in her class on a recent Wednesday morning. She says as many as 30 or 40 students sometimes attend.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

Krause says he’s spent the second half of his life teaching English as a second language. For the past several months, he and two fellow volunteers, Lisa Haist and Roxanne McKenzie, have worked together, teaching a mixed-level class Wednesday mornings. Krause and Heist take the beginners, sometimes as many as 30 or 40 students; McKenzie breaks off into her own room to teach more advanced English.

“I think I have an easier job than Pete and Lisa because sometimes they're working with people who have no knowledge of our alphabet,” McKenzie says. “And some people have never held a writing utensil before. So it can be a little bit more challenging there. They're learning the ABCs and one-two-threes. Basics.”

The students are all adults, and all are refugees who have been resettled in Wichita. Most come from countries in Africa and the Middle East: Congo, Somalia, Tanzania, Syria.

The IRC is headquartered in New York City, but opened an office in Wichita in late 2011. The city’s low cost of living and large number of manufacturing jobs made it ideal for refugees coming to the U.S.

A stack of ESL books and dictionaries sits in the classroom at the IRC in south Wichita.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

On a recent Wednesday morning, as McKenzie and about a dozen students worked on the past- and present-tense forms of the verbs “to be” and “to have,” Krause and Haist are working with their students on how to write an address: name, street number, zip code. It’s essential information as they settle in to life in a new country.

“Some people have come here with university experience, even refugees,” Krause says. “We’re finding some who have had high positions or some with a university background, and then in the same class will have somebody who, like Roxanne said, hasn't held the pencil before.”

The range of levels in the same class can make it challenging to meet each student's needs, Haist says, but it just takes patience. She had no ESL teaching experience before starting with the IRC almost a year ago, but taught German as a foreign language in her home country of Brazil.

“I'm glad when something works even when it's just one activity that they are really engaged in,” she says. “They are usually very interested. So they want to learn, and that's very positive.”

Volunteer Roxanne McKenzie goes over the past and present tenses of the verbs "to have" and "to be" with her class.
Credit Nadya Faulx / KMUW

McKenzie says whatever frustration may come with learning a new language as an adult, her students come to class as often as possible.

“They want to be here. They want good jobs, they want the American dream, they want their family to prosper,” she says.

And as much as her students gain from the English classes, McKenzie says she’s not volunteering to teach for altruistic reasons.

“I get a lot of joy, and I get pumped up and I feel great. I look forward to coming, and then afterwards, I feel great because someone connected and they understood what I was teaching. And that’s fantastic,” she says. “Most days I feel like I get more than I give, but hopefully they get as much, or more. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here anymore.”

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Follow Nadya Faulx on Twitter @NadyaFaulx.

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