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Learning English a top priority for asylum seekers

The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center is offering English classes to those newcomers eager to learn the language.

PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly a month has passed since dozens of asylum-seeking families from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola landed in Portland in search of a place to stay and food to eat. That number is now nearing three-hundred as people poured in over a span of weeks. As these families settle into their new life in the United States, they seek to move forward with housing and eventually job opportunities. But they face another challenge: learning English.  

RELATED: Translators, federal credit union help Portland asylum seekers

The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center recognized the need for additional English classes for newcomers. The center opened in 2017 as a collaboration hub for immigrant entrepreneurs. It has since expanded into a cornerstone of Portland's immigrant community, providing opportunities for civic engagement and language instruction. 

The center added a digital language learning lab in January partnership with Maine Health. It features state of the art software with English language mastery and career-oriented courses. The center started a new course Monday to accommodate the newcomers.

The class is maxed out at 20 students who trickle in throughout the day for their computer sessions. Each person completes courses based on their level of fluency. "There's reading, there's writing, there's grammar, there's vocabulary. There's listening," said Damas Rugaba of the program. Rugaba is the assistant director of the center. He said every newcomer he's met is eager to learn English and integrate into the community.

"They walk all the way from the expo to here. Every single day. Some continue to learn through lunch. They don't even break for lunch."

One of those students is David Zwaleda-Moda. He arrived with his family to Portland in early June after a harrowing journey from the Democratic Republic of Congo. David decided to take English classes instead of sitting idly by at the expo- waiting for paperwork to clear.

"We are not here as dumb people or beggars. Some of us have college degrees. We come with diverse knowledge," Zwaleda-Moda said.

After he finishes the program and is cleared to work Zwaleda-Moda hopes to get a job as a jurist.

"I like helping people, I like defending people in a good way," he said.

RELATED: $400,000 raised for families in Expo Center

The Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center is collaborating with the city and other services to coordinate permanent housing solutions for the newcomers. In the interim, they hope to expand their English language offerings to more people with a second location in South Portland. The center needs help coordinating transportation to South Portland from the Expo. Anyone that may be able to help is asked to contact the center here.

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