By Shannon Findley and Emily Ballard
Nurjahan Vagom, a 53-year-old Muslim woman who moved to Waco from Bangladesh, struggles with feeling isolated in American society.
The language barrier has been a major obstacle for her since moving to the U.S. in 2009, said Carolyn Dodson, an English instructor for Neighbors International. Vagom’s story resonates with many people who have moved across the world. Every Sunday evening, she meets Dodson in a small classroom in Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, often accompanied by her 12-year-old son, Rohan. Vagom takes a seat next to Dodson, pulls out her notes and a pencil and looks eager to learn. Neighbors International is a program run by Columbus Avenue Baptist Church that helps foreign-born residents of the Waco area adapt to U.S. culture through lessons in skills such as English and technology.
The program offers an assortment of classes in addition to English, including sewing, piano, citizenship education and choir. The program educates a wide spectrum of people across the world. Despite the initial difficulties many of the international students have with the English language, the program has helped numerous program participants pass the U.S. citizenship test and go on to be successful American citizens.
“We had five last summer who got their citizenship, and we’ve already had several this year who passed,” Dodson said.
Dodson said many foreign-born Waco residents join the program for a place of belonging because one can become easily isolated when his or her language skills are not strong.
“It begins a sense of family,” she said.
Glenda Weldon, a former home economics teacher, helped start Neighbors International in the fall of 1970 and serves as the program director. Though she stopped teaching in public school to raise her children, she still wanted to teach and the Neighbors International program gave her that opportunity.
“It was an area I felt like I could be used,” she said. “I feel like it’s a mission field here.”
Snow Gu, another Neighbors International student, moved about six years ago from Beijing when her husband got a job as a physics researcher at Baylor. Since she does not work outside of the home, she said she enjoys getting out of the house a couple times a week and taking part in the Neighbors International program’s sewing, piano and painting classes. A love for painting runs in Gu’s family. Her mother currently teaches painting to children in the Houston area. Gu is not a Christian, but she has been learning a lot about Jesus in Neighbors International’s Thursday morning Bible lessons.
“Some of them are already Christian, but of course it’s not a requirement,” Dodson said. “We just want to love them and let them know we care about them.”
Classes meet on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at CABC and are open to foreign-born men and women of all ages. People who graduate from the program are able to apply to colleges and jobs, and are better able to communicate with English speakers at their current places of employment, Dodson said. Some successful graduates of the program have even been international Baylor students and their spouses.
Dodson said the program at CABC has represented 30 countries, with nearly 160 members in Thursday classes.
In Vagom’s lesson, Dodson held up images of food items and Vagom named and categorized them. Dodson then quizzed Vagom over prepositions. For Vagom, fine-tuning her English skills enables her to complete every day tasks such as grocery shopping. Vagom’s limited English vocabulary has required her to have a member of Neighbors International accompany her every time she goes to the grocery store.
Vagom said she is going back to Bangladesh to visit her grown children this summer. When she returns to Waco in the fall, she will take her U.S. citizenship test and must be able to communicate orally in English.
“Reading, writing is OK,” Vagom said. Talking is very hard. English very hard.”
In a booklet full of testimonies of former Neighbor International participants, one Chinese woman reflected on the program’s impact on her life: “Later on, I know the true meaning of the neighbors program that is the biggest commandment from our loving God: ‘Love your neighbors as you love yourself.’”