Esther leans over a piece of paper and quickly reads off the list of numbers printed there. Her teacher nods her head in approval. Then she asks Esther, an enthusiastic 8-year-old with a bright smile, to sound out the letters of the alphabet.
“Ah,” Esther says. “Buh.” Then she demonstrates her writing ability by penning a sentence about how much she likes Valentine’s Day.
Esther is completing a routine mid-year assessment designed to gauge how she is doing in math and reading. But this isn’t a typical public school classroom. Rather, it’s an after-school program for refugee and immigrant children run by Emmaus United Methodist Church in Albany. Every day, children in kindergarten through the age of 14 receive tutoring and English lessons; the goal is to give them the skills they need to succeed in America.
After Esther completes her assessment, she rejoins her peers, who are making Valentine’s Day cards to give to elderly members of the church. Esther is from Kenya; her parents are Rwandan. Before she came to America last year, she lived in a refugee camp; she had never used a shower or a flush toilet. But she is learning quickly and says she likes the after-school program.
“They help you with your homework if there are things you don’t know,” she said. “I have fun.”
Not all of the children in the program are from Rwanda. Others are from Myanmar, Tanzania and Pakistan; many of them fled violence and conflict in their homelands. Now they live in Albany.
Founded in 2007, the after-school programs came out of a community needs assessment conducted by the church, which is based in the Pine Hills neighborhood. The assessment revealed that people in the area were hungry, lacked supervision for their children and wanted bilingual education, according to the Rev. Denise Stringer, the pastor at the church.
Emmaus hosts two separate after-school programs that are staffed by a mix of paid staff and volunteers, many of whom come from local colleges such as the College of St. Rose and the University at Albany.
An English as a Second or Other Language program occupies the church’s upper floor, while an English immersion program, geared toward children who are new to the country and do not speak any English, is downstairs. The programs do not mix, but when a child attains a certain level of proficiency in English, he or she moves upstairs. There are approximately 25 kids in both programs.
“Our newest arrivals come with zero English skills,” Stringer said.
Life skills are taught in both programs. Students learn about safety, such as how to read a traffic light, hygiene and nutrition. They learn about money management and social skills, such as respect, trust and honesty, how to resolve conflicts, how to care for their environment and citizenship.
One of the main goals, Stringer said, is to reduce the level of stress in the lives of refugee children.
“These children face a lot of social stresses,” Stringer said. “[At school], they deal with racial and ethnic issues. They deal with bullying and prejudice. When they’re here, they’re in an environment that’s just for them, with children who are also refugees.”
“We see ourselves as a bridge between the refugees and the wider North American community,” Stringer said. “We don’t bring these people here, but we try to fill the gaps.”
Forty-year-old Francis Sengabo, a native of Rwanda, arrived in Albany after living in a refugee camp in Tanzania for more than a decade; in the refugee camp, Sengabo, who now serves as the project director of the church’s Multicultural Intervention Project, created and ran a school for children.
“In the camp, many children were idle,” he said. “I saw that you could start a project to give the children school.”
Eventually, he was appointed principal.
When Sengabo arrived in America in 2007 with his wife and two children, now 8 and 5, he could see that the children needed extra help.
“It was difficult for the children to be integrated into American schools,” he said. “Our children lived in the forest — the camps were not in the town. Our kids, even myself, this was the first time we had lights, a toilet.”
The cold weather was new, too.
“It was so cold, it gave us a headache,” he said.
Sengabo, who is fluent in Swahili and French and speaks English fairly well, met Stringer when she visited his house to welcome him and his family to the neighborhood. When he mentioned his experience running the school in the refugee camp, she invited him to work at Emmaus. In addition to his job at Emmaus, he works full-time for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany.
“This program helps so much,” said Sengabo, whose daughter, Cynthia, attends the upstairs program. “The kids do their homework. They speak English. We work with the parents, too. Most of the parents do not speak English or know how to write.”
He added, “We are not able to assist all the kids who need this program. I’d like to see this program be expanded to touch every kid who needs it.”
The after-school programs are part of a larger initiative, called the Emmaus Intervention Project with Recent Immigrants and Refugees. Through this project, the church also provides adult tutoring, runs a food pantry for immigrants and refugees and also distributes clothing and other household goods. Adults representing eight different nationalities comprise the project’s Multicultural Leadership Team, which functions as a board of directors.
“Many of the people we serve have children, but we’ll provide services to individuals with no children,” said Stringer, who serves as director of the after-school project and executive director of the Intervention Project with Recent Immigrants and Refugees.
Many refugees feel comfortable going to a church for assistance because they had a positive relationship with a church or mission organization in their home country or refugee camp, Stringer said.
Although many refugees have joined since the project was launched, at that time, only one refugee belonged to the church. He created a checklist of the things refugees need help with when they arrive in Albany, such as how to use the public bus system, how to get a library card and how to use the post office.
The Emmaus Intervention Project is funded through a combination of grants, child care subsidies and private gifts from churches. The entire program costs approximately $125,000 a year.
The Rev. Steve Smith, the pastor at Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church in Schenectady, said his church supports the program through financial gifts because it is a worthwhile cause.
“The Old Testament and the Gospels tell us to extend hospitality to those who are strangers in our midst,” Smith said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Emmaus United Methodist is an older building with, as Stringer puts it, “about 25 years of deferred maintenance,” and there are plans to rehabilitate it and expand the church’s programs for refugees. A large fellowship hall and kitchen are being renovated; the goal is to open a soup kitchen and prepare the meals and snacks for the refugee children on site. Because the church lacks a functional kitchen, all of the food provided to the refugee programs is prepared elsewhere.
Last week, Stringer lead a brief lesson on “good classroom order” with six children.
“When we have snack on the table, what must what we do?” asked Stringer.
Several children eagerly raised their hands.
“Pray,” Esther said.
“You should be having a conversation in English — good English,” Stringer said. “If Yvonne looks sad and tired, you say, ‘Yvonne, why are you sad and tired?’ After you’re done with snack, what do you do?”
Another girl raises her hand and says, “You show your bookbag to your teacher to check it for homework.”
Then Stringer told the biblical story of the good Samaritan.
“Who is your neighbor?” she asked the children.
“Poor and sick people,” said one girl.
“Everybody,” Esther said.