Remember those feelings of uneasiness and self-doubt when you walked into the classroom on your first day at a brand new school? Or the apprehension in your stomach and your sweaty palms on the first day of a job? We have all felt like strangers in an unfamiliar environment at one time or another, and we know that it isn’t the most comfortable of feelings. For immigrants and refugees, many of those difficulties are magnified by language barriers, cultural differences, and isolation. Since 1995, Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Program has been working to lower those barriers and reach out to those feeling isolated by providing language lessons and one-on-one relationships for non-English-speaking immigrants. Send Me St. Louis contacted Executive Director Pat Joshu to dig a little deeper into the mission of IRWP’s inspiring work.
In the past two decades, Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Program has grown from a small ministry founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame to a non-profit agency serving 157 immigrants and refugees in the St. Louis area last year. Through the efforts of approximately 90 volunteer “teachers,” IRWP focuses on teaching English as a second language to newly immigrated “students,” as well as life skills such as job interviewing and grocery shopping to help students adjust to life in the U.S. IRWP frequently partners with agencies such as Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Family Care Health Center, and Casa de Salud to ensure that their students are getting the resources they need.
Teachers and students meet in students’ homes for one hour twice a week. Staying in the student’s home allows them to feel comfortable and overcomes any barriers related to transportation or child care. However, the teacher-student relationship at IRWP is most certainly different than the historically traditional sense. Not only are teachers encouraged to work with their students as a team, but there is a sense of friendship that often arises when two people regularly converse in one’s living room along with children, pets, and sometimes food. Often teachers and students continue their friendships long after the lessons cease; they become as part of the family and are invited to lunch dates and even weddings.
Teachers and students are matched according to the teacher’s locale and whether or not they “click” with a student. According to Ms. Joshu, this matching is where God is seen moving the most. In one case, a student who lived in O’Fallon, and then another in St. Charles. At the time, no volunteers were near those areas, but in a matter of days two volunteers from both areas applied to serve. IRWP even had a widower with six children ask for services, and miraculously shortly after a man called IRWP to see if it was possible for him to volunteer even though it is a “women’s program”. “This happens too much for God not to be putting the right people in the right places,” Ms. Joshu said.
The students are not the only ones who gain from working with IRWP, but the volunteers experience love, support, and encouragement as well. In Ms. Joshu’s words, “One of the great things about how things are at the organization is that we don’t look at our students or volunteers as numbers – each one is a real person to us. We try to be a safe haven for our volunteers AND our students.” The self-care of volunteers is a priority to the staff of IRWP. They regularly sit and chat with volunteers who come into the office to ensure that volunteers are having good experiences both within IRWP and outside of it.
Despite IRWP’s phenomenal successes, they still have plenty of goals for the future. One goal in particular is to reduce the number of women on the waiting list for services, and the duration of waiting. As of today, there are 75 women waiting to be taught by IRWP volunteers. Ideally, one day IRWP will have its own building to be able to expand and better serve their students and volunteers. They also hope to develop a more efficient way to better support and track students’ and volunteers’ progress in the program. While concrete plans for further development are still foggy, Pat Joshu knows anything is possible, “If you told me 8 years ago we’d be where we are now, I’d never have believed you.”
“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9). IRWP’s mission is living out our Lord’s command by helping over 600 women in the St. Louis area feel welcomed and equipped to pursue their lives in our community.