August 16, 2013

Methodist Church Opens Doors to Knoxville Refugees

Two Iraqi refugees in Bridge Refugee Services English class.
Two Iraqi refugees in Knoxville, Tennessee receive help with English grammar from a Bridge Refugee Services volunteer. Bridge's English classes are held at Washington Pike UMC. Photo: Margie Nicoara

Stop by Washington Pike United Methodist Church on a weekday morning, and you’ll find adult students using real world scenarios to practice and improve their English.

In one classroom are beginners learning to make an emergency call to 911. An intermediate class practices English in the kitchen by making and eating pancakes together. A third classroom holds advanced students working on grammar.

All of these students are refugees who fled persecution in places like Iraq, Rwanda, or Myanmar. They are working hard now to learn English in their new home, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Cedric Twizere, a Rwandan refugee who arrived from Zambia earlier this year, studies with the advanced class. “In Zambia, they use British English. They call traffic lights robots. When I say robots, people here just look at me. Class helped me understand the difference between British and American English…I’m even getting used to the accent now.”

A few months ago, Bridge Refugee Services, a refugee resettlement affiliate of CWS, could only imagine teaching multiple classes simultaneously.

“We had been looking for a long time,” says Margie Nicoara, the English Language Training Coordinator for Bridge, referring to the search to find suitable space. “We were holding classes in an office at Bridge. It wasn’t a proper classroom, and it never felt formal. It didn’t even have a door.”

“When we held classes at Bridge, we didn’t have child care, so parents brought their kids to class.” Nicoara explains that beyond children making noise in class, the office offered additional distractions. “Students might think of a question during class and leave in the middle to go find their case manager.” The situation was not ideal.

That all changed when the Rev. Dr. Pat Polis and the congregation at Washington Pike UMC offered their Sunday school classrooms to Bridge and their English classes.  “My goal is to have the church full and not standing empty. Not just on Sunday but during the week, too,” Polis says. In addition, Washington Pike UMC also opened its daycare to the children of the English students, allowing parents to focus on learning.

Located within walking distance of many of the students, Washington Pike UMC is quickly becoming a gathering place for refugees living in the area. Beyond hosting English classes, a small congregation of Christian refugees from Myanmar (Burma) worships weekly in the fellowship hall. Before Washington Pike UMC offered to host them, the congregation was meeting in an apartment – a tight fit for 50 people.

Bridge also held its World Refugee Day celebration at the church. “It was an overwhelming success,” says Polis.  “The idea was that people would come and go throughout the evening, but everyone just ended up staying.”

While Bridge Refugee Services and Washington Pike UMC are just beginning to work together, the relationship promises to grow. “Bridge has a partner in this church,” Polis says.

“The God I serve doesn’t discriminate,” says Polis when asked about the church’s commitment to providing hospitality to Knoxville’s newest residents. “Just look what God is doing in our midst.”