© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The key to success: St. Louis immigrants eager to learn English

Maryam Bakhtari trained to be a doctor in Afghanistan. She never thought there would be a time when she couldn't practice gynecology. But as a new immigrant to the United States, her chosen field is beyond her. These days, she's focusing on a different kind of learning.

Bakhtari takes English classes at the International Institute of St. Louis. She’s among the approximate 1,100 adults who take the classes every year. The International Institute has the largest English for Speakers of Other Languages program in the St. Louis region. 

Most of the current students are refugees from Bhutan, Somalia and Syria. Students represent 75 countries and are speakers of 40 different languages.


“I really need it ... I want to find a good professional job,” Bakhtari said. “And also, to support and help my children with their homework. And become an independent person in the community and society.”

Bakhtari, who is from Kabul, speaks Dari and Pashto. She arrived in the United States with her husband and four children in February 2016, on a Special Immigrant Visa. Bakhtari said their lives were in danger because her husband worked with the U.S. military.

After adjusting to life in St. Louis, Bakhtari enrolled her children in school and signed up for English classes in October.

A year later, she said she sees a big improvement in her English skills.

“When I started the classes, I was not comfortable to talk with someone. After one year now, I can talk confidently,” she said. Bakhtari now juggles being a housewife, mom of four and student.

At times, she said, it’s tough to balance it all. But her husband’s support keeps her going.

The students often have to balance adjusting to a new society, raising families and working, on top of attending the English classes. Often, students will excuse themselves in the middle of lessons to make it to their jobs on time.

The International Institute tries to cater to the student’s varying schedules by offering morning, afternoon and evening classes.

Hema Rasaily listens during an English class at the International Institute of St. Louis.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Hema Rasaily listens during an English class at the International Institute of St. Louis.

English is the key 

The students’ tenacity and ability to commit time to learning a language is remarkable, said Anita Barker, the International Institute’s vice president and director of education.

The students are taught “survival English” — reading, writing and listening to lessons that pertain to their daily lives.

“Our English classes are for our students to learn the English they need to be successful in their lives here,” said Barker, a former English teacher at the International Institute. “Successful as parents, successful as workers, successful as neighbors, residents of the St. Louis area.”

The English classes are funded in collaboration with ST. Louis Public Schools Adult Education and Literacy (AEL) program. Barker said the AEL funding helps pay teachers for their teaching time and for the training required for them to get and maintain their AEL certification with the state of Missouri.  

The program has seven levels of literacy classes, from beginning to advanced. Every month, students take a test to see if they’re ready for the next level class.

Holding a pencil for the first time

Students come from various educational backgrounds. Some, like Bakhtari, were university graduates and professionals in their home countries. But a few are learning to hold a pencil — for the very first time.

Barker said various factors influence how difficult it is to learn a different language.

“We have Nepali from Bhutan who had been 20 years in a refugee camp. Many of them, particularly the women, did not have access to education,” she said. In addition to a lace of previous formal education, other factors Barker mentioned include age, culture, traumatic past experiences and how similar one’s native language is to English.

Marlene Kruse, who teaches the beginning level classes, said her students have very limited English-language skills. Some aren’t literate in their native languages. But Kruse, who has taught the classes for 30 years, said it’s become her passion to help immigrants advance their English language so they can assimilate to U.S. society easier.

“Their kindness, their gestures, their feelings, their appreciation of education — warms the heart,” Kruse said.

At times there are as many as a dozen nationalities in her class. Kruse said it’s natural for people to stick with others who speak the same language and come from the same culture. But, the students in her classes also interact and help each other despite, their different backgrounds.

“You see it in the hallways,” Kruse said. “They will sit next to each other, they will talk. They do have a great deal of concern for each other.”

Students work on an assignment during an introductory English class at the International Institute of St. Louis.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Students work on an assignment during an introductory English class at the International Institute of St. Louis.

Advanced programs

The classes at the International Institute are free and are open-ended. Students can repeat different levels if needed.

The institute also offers special sessions to help students with other subjects, such as a nine-week Bridge to College course.

Barker said learning English paves the way for immigrants to take important steps in the country, such as gaining citizenship or attending college. The organization also offers citizenship and computer sessions.

Bakhtari took the Bridge to College course. She’s eager to find a job in the medical profession, because she earned her medical degree in Afghanistan.

“It’s so hard for me. I was working in Kabul in a hospital,” she said. “Now I’m at home, a housewife. I can't do anything in my field.”

She hopes to attend community college in 2018 and eventually become an emergency medical technician.

Follow Lara on Twitter: @hamdanlf

Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.