BY LINDA SCOTT
Refugees from Congo, Uganda, Mexico and other places relocated to this area to seek new opportunities, and local residents are helping them adjust to their new surroundings.
The refugees and volunteers meet every Sunday at the Lackawanna County Children’s Library in Scranton. The program is temporarily on hold, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it’s in session, around 30 refugees attend along with their children who are all ages.
Marilyn Pryle, who teaches 10th grade English World Literature at Abington Heights High School, explained how the program got its start.
“We started the program about three years ago,” Pryle said. “The Church of Saint Gregory in Clarks Green had hosted a Christmas party for the local refugee population in Scranton and I wondered what we could do for them on a more long-term basis. As an English teacher and former ESL teacher, I knew an English conservation could be effective. I contacted Sonya Sarner, the program manager for refuges and immigration at Catholic Social Service in Scranton. I contacted the Lackawanna County Library System offices, and they gave us a space in the Lackawanna County’s Children Library. Many community members had already expressed an interest in helping, so I rounded up a group of volunteers, and we just dove in.”
“Refugees settling in the United States, not surprisingly, come to the country with very little exposure to English as a primary language,” said Father John Lapera, pastor, Church of Saint Gregory. “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. Our parish family at Saint Gregory’s welcomes wonderful volunteers including Marilyn Pryle. She has built a force of volunteers who are ready, willing and able to teach refugee families a new language which is of great benefit to those families and the community.”
Abington Heights students help with the refugee children. They play with the younger children, read books, help them with their homework, play games such as Bingo, play with Lego’s and building blocks, or help the children with the library’s computers.
“I enjoy working with refugees because they provide a new perspective on life,” said Isabella Wisenburn, a junior at Abington Heights. “They have had many struggles in life, they are optimistic and hopeful for the future. They remind me that no matter what situation a person was or is in, there is always something to be happy about or something to look forward to.”
Ella Mahon, a junior, said she and Mary O’Brien, a junior, made the program their “entire life.”
“We work at Catholic Social Services filling out forms to help with refugee resettlement and taught citizenship classes,” Ella said. “I am forever grateful for them. They have become my family and have inspired me to dedicate my life to helping others.”
“My friends of many nations have taught me that being kind is always possible,” said Mary O’Brien, a junior. They have endured unimaginable trauma yet they wake up every morning and continue to make the most of their lives. My friends who happen to be refugees proved to me that love truly conquers all.”
The adult volunteers work with the adults to help fulfill their individual needs. The refugees speak English at different levels; some work on basic vocabulary while others are illiterate in their own language and are learning how to write. They learn how to count money, tell time, read a calendar and fill out forms. The refugees who are bilingual or trilingual and have completed school in their countries might work on the Pennsylvania driver’s permit app or higher-level vocabulary.
“I genuinely love working with the refugees and it is often the highlight of my week,” said Sarah Siddiqui, a junior at Abington Heights. “I really enjoy being with the children and I love listening to the kids read. It’s so inspiring to see their incredible improvement each week.”
“I enjoy seeing their excited faces when they learn something new,” said Emma Gibson, a senior. “I love hearing them read and seeing how much they continue to learn. They have taught me resilience. After everything thing they have gone through, they continue to have hope and strive for the future.”
“It is a way to practice everything I believe in education, compassion, literacy and empowering others,” said Pryle. “It is a small way for me to give back after all the privileges I’ve had in my life. The most moving part for me, is seeing the other volunteers especially the students experience so much joy in the process. The refugees have taught me patience, persistence, hospitably and joy and how to be joyful regardless of the circumstances.”