From Afghanistan to the Fox Valley

From Afghanistan to the Fox Valley

Improving English skills helps refugees adjust to life in America

| By: Britten, Casey


IN PHOTO (left to right): ELL students Jawad Sader, Obaidullah Sader, Sulaiman Salehi and Mohammad Ashrof Azimy.

Mohammad Ashrof Azimy was a dentist in Afghanistan. He trained at the Kabul Medical University and has five years of experience working in a hospital setting. Then in August 2021, he fled his home country during the large-scale airlift that took place in the final weeks of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In September 2021, Mohammad was one of the 76,000 Afghan citizens arriving in the U.S., and now at 30 years old is settling into his new life in Menasha.

“I want to be a licensed doctor again, and enroll in a dental program in America,” he says. In January 2022, he started taking advanced-level English classes at Fox Valley Technical College. He attends class two days a week at the Appleton campus.

“This semester, there are around 90 Afghan refugees enrolled in FVTC’s English Language Learning (ELL) classes, with several more enrolling each week,” according to Colette Kolb, FVTC associate dean of General Studies. Refugees have a broad range of skills and education, so they complete an English placement exam to determine which of the six levels they will be placed in.

The majority of the students are enrolled in the first level, which is a foundational program taught by Deb Gylund. Level one is the gateway to other levels, jobs, American culture and basic survival.

Classes are offered both online and face-to-face, and focus on reading, writing, speaking, presentation and career skills through English language immersion. Workplace communication is also included. Each level takes four months to complete. Refugees are referred to FVTC for classes by the humanitarian organization World Relief Fox Valley, which works with them to meet their other needs, such as housing, healthcare and more.

Colette explains that ELL classes are offered at the Appleton and Oshkosh Campuses, as well as the Even Start Family Literacy programs in Appleton and Menasha. “We also find that the instructors and support staff also create relationships that go beyond the academics,” she adds.

Gillian Giles-Skelton is Mohammad’s teacher. In addition to working with the refugees from Afghanistan, she has taught students from the Congo, Sudan, Venezuela and Laos. “This job is never boring,” she says. “I'm constantly learning about other cultures, languages and people."

“Teaching these students is an honor and a privilege,” she adds. “I cannot fathom how much they have gone through to be able to get to this country. If I can help make the transition to American life easier by teaching them English as well as American culture, then I’ve done my job.”

Sulaiman Salehi, Obaidullah Sader and Jawad Sader are in intermediate-level classes taught by Brian Skelton. They also arrived in September at the same time as Mohammad. Sulaiman, 22, had been studying computer science in Afghanistan; here, he plans to become a dental assistant. Obaidullah, 33, wants to continue his work in computer science. Jawad, 27, plans to trade his career as a professor of agriculture for a future in computer science.

Mohammad and his fellow students appreciate their teachers’ patient and thorough manner. “They are great teachers,” says Mohammad. “I am learning a lot. They take the time to learn about our culture too, which is very helpful.”

While they reflect on the lives they have left behind, they are also hopeful about their future in the United States. “We want to be part of American society,” says Mohammad.

If you'd like to help, an ELL scholarship fund has been established through the FVTC Foundation, Inc. Money raised from this fund creates opportunities for students to make the transition from ELL classes into degree programs. Simply type "ELL" in the designation box. Learn more >>