English school gives refugee mothers and their young children an opportunity to build community and a sense of belonging and helps reduce barriers for inclusion among this often overlooked group.

Hawa Abdelrahmin’s kind smile hides that by 8:30 on a sunny Thursday morning, she’s already had a very busy day. After walking a mile to take six-year-old son Ahmed to kindergarten with siblings Youssef (3) and Susan (8 months) in tow, she headed next to English class before getting a call that Ahmed was sick with pinkeye and must be taken home.

Now Hawa is in the middle of a “hallway consultation” with Mommy & Me Director Jennifer Green, who picked up the family and brought them to the Friends of Refugees building in Clarkston, Georgia; Mommy & Me is a program within the organization that specifically helps refugee mothers and children. Alternately on the phone with a nurse and a pharmacy for eye drops, Jennifer was hoping to help Hawa avoid scheduling a doctor’s appointment.

“There are so many barriers for refugee mothers to participate and thrive in their communities,” says Jennifer Green. “Mothers often are not even on people’s radar. If Ahmed needs an appointment, where could he go? Hawa doesn’t have transportation, appointment hours are often restrictive, and she has two other young children with no child care. Meanwhile, she’s trying to recover from the trauma of being a refugee and actively learning English to give her family new opportunities.”

Jennifer Green

The bustling hallway at Mommy & Me has classrooms for babies, toddlers, and preschool-aged children of refugee mothers; it’s the only place in town that provides such high quality – and free - child care. There are sounds of children doing structured play and interacting with each other. Upstairs in a series of classrooms, their mothers are learning English, studying U.S. citizenship requirements, and gaining a sense of community.

“It’s so clear in our community who has felt welcomed,” says Jennifer Green. “It’s survival versus being part of a community and thriving. I can see it in our students. We are here to teach language, but just as much to create a sense of belonging and welcome. English is just a means.”

Mommy & Me has about 200 students – mothers and their children - enrolled from September to May and a staff of eight that includes 3 ESL teachers, lead and assistant teachers, and up to 10 daily volunteers. Classes go from 9-12 each day, and then there is time for mothers to interact with their children while reading books.

Over 28 languages are represented by the mothers, who are separated into different classes by English ability. In the beginner class, they may first need to learn how to simply hold a pencil or which way to turn paper, as some didn’t write in their home countries.

In the mid-level English classroom, a mother rushes out with a fussy baby on her back. The teacher runs after her – “It was just a little cry, come back!” Jennifer explains: “We let mothers keep their babies with them in class if they want, but often they are very sensitive to disrupting others. We used to have classes downstairs, but if a mom heard any baby cry, they would all rush to see if it was theirs!”

The program does no advertising and is consistently full, with a long wait list.

“Women who have found us have been resourceful,” said Jennifer. “There are so many women still in their apartments with no help. We have to turn people away because of funding.”

But for those who do attend Mommy & Me, the difference it makes on their lives is huge.

“We didn’t know anyone when we first arrived but now, I feel like I belong to my community,” said Hawa, who has attended English classes at Mommy & Me for over two years. “I can go to the market and interact with people or to school meetings and understand what teachers are asking us to do. The program makes daily life easier for us.”

Hawa

As classes end for the summer, Jennifer actively is planning play groups and library visits to keep them all connected.

“If you feel welcome, it gives you the emotional grounding that makes other experiences positive,” said Jennifer. “It’s a nice way to live and a two-way street. When I welcome, I feel welcomed.”

Across the United States, refugees and other immigrants are strengthening our communities.  These individuals represent the very resilience that defines us as Americans, and our common desire to make a better life ourselves and our families.  Our communities are enriched by the new businesses that refugee entrepreneurs are opening, and by the global perspectives and cultural vitality that newcomers add to schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

Clarkston, Georgia, is a Welcoming America member and the nonprofit organization Friends of Refugees is a member of the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies, which is also a member of Welcoming America.

Our network helps nonprofit and government partners such as Clarkston and the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies transform their communities into more welcoming places for all people, including immigrants. Participating members can connect with peers to share ideas and tools, and receive recognition for their efforts. Learn more about how your community can join Welcoming America.

Learn more about the Mommy & Me program

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