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Know Your Rights
Source: City Limits
Subject: Adult Literacy
Type: Media Coverage

Virtual English Classes Offer Escape and Comfort for Immigrants During Lockdown

Millions of New Yorkers are experiencing restlessness, boredom, stress, worry, and pain during the quarantine to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

That’s the sentiment expressed by Dominican-born Alba Liriano, 24, who is counting the days, minutes and hours for the pandemic to pass. She said that the situation is overwhelming for her, not just because of the constant news of deaths and confirmed coronavirus cases, but because for weeks she’s been unable to work at the money transfer agency where she’s been employed since she arriving in New York from the province of Espaillat in the D.R.

Still, she has made the most of the situation. With so much spare time, Liriano found a way to cope with the confinement by taking free, remote English classes offered by Make the Road New York.

She is convinced that the classes, which she started taking on March 16, are saving her from falling into depression or having an anxiety attack.

“To me, this has been a relief in the middle of the sad and painful situation we are enduring. I have always wanted to learn English well and I have not been able to because I have been working ever since I came from the Dominican Republic. Now, for the first time in my life, I can do something without being worried all the time,” she said. “I think we can make something good even of a bad situation, and that is what we are trying to do.”

From 8:30 a 10:30 in the morning four times a week, Liriano sits at a table at home — where she lives her father, step-mother and step-sister — grabs her smart phone and attends virtual English class.

“I love knowing that I am making the most of my time, doing something I like, and that Make the Road gives us the opportunity to continue learning,” she said.

For her and the 26 people with whom she shares the virtual classroom, the two hours of challenging English classes are also a therapy.

“We learn, but we also laugh, we encourage each other, and we have even been supporting students in class who have had the coronavirus. Also, the two teachers are very nice,” said Liriano. She’s set a deadline for herself, aiming to improve her English proficiency before the quarantine ends.

“I think sometimes we spend life finding excuses to put off doing something we like, and with this pandemic I have learned that we need to fight for what we want,” she added, saying she aspires to become a gynecologist or a police officer. “I have decided that things do not end when this course ends; I will continue taking any other classes they offer.”

Hernan Fernández, who used to work as a delivery man but lost his job due to the pandemic, is another immigrant who has found respite in English classes. A total of 475 virtual students benefit from the Make the Road program.

“The course allows me to change the monotony of being stuck indoors. It is like an escape from the pain, a relief from the confinement in which, not only do I learn, but I also have lots of fun with Elke, the teacher, and my fellow students,” said the Colombia native. “Even though the class is online, we never get bored, we do different things all the time, and it soothes us from the stress many of us are managing lately in the face of situations such as not knowing how we are going to pay rent or, for many others, even put food on the table.”

Fernández said that before the quarantine he was unable to be this dedicated with his classes because of the long shifts he worked delivering food. In spite of the many worries on his mind, he’s more motivated now to learn English so he can access more work opportunities after the COVID-19 nightmare ends.

“Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a device or a computer to connect to the courses, or there are even people who do not have internet because they cannot afford it, which is why the city should think about us and offer us more help to overcome these hurdles,” he added.

Julie Quintón, literacy director at Make the Road, said that, despite being forced to close its offices due to the pandemic, the organization remains committed to providing remote assistance to the community.

“The members of our community can keep on taking English classes, which allows them to continue their education. This also helps our students maintain a routine, as this pandemic has affected many people physically, and mentally as well,” said the community leader.

Another organization carrying out a similar program is Staten Island’s La Colmena (“the beehive”) where bilingual volunteers are holding virtual classes during the pandemic for immigrant workers. They currently have 65 students, most of them over 60 years old.

“Knowledge is power,” said César Vargas, an immigration lawyer and community advocate. “Learning English grants our immigrant neighbors the power to navigate the city and to know their rights.”

Yesenia Mata, executive director of La Colmena, says they launched the project both to help people improve their language skills but also to spread the word about the 2020 Census.

“The students are required to complete their census forms in order to take part in the classes,” said the activist, saying the pandemic has created new challenges in reaching immigrant communities.

“Our census outreach events had to be cancelled due to the ban on mass gatherings,” Mata said. “Organizing these virtual classes allows us to connect with communities that are hard to count, register them for the census and offer them the chance to learn English with qualified instructors.”

Margarita Sánchez, one of the teachers, said the program shows the value of unity during times of crisis.

“We are all in this together. Teaching English is my way of supporting a community that makes a great contribution to Staten Island and to the country during these uncertain times.”