Community asked to engage in Family Engagement CenterMar 09, 2023 10:18AM ● By Jet Burnham
Amarilis and Ender Gonzalez (at center) with their son Ender Jr (left) and daughter-in-law Maria Jose Barboza (second from the right) with their English teacher, SilviAnnie Silveira (at far right). (Jet Burnham/City Journals)
From doctor and academic to manufacturing plant: Center helping refugees improve English-speaking skills
Ender Gonzalez is a doctor and his wife Amarilis is a college professor. At least, those were their professions when they lived in Venezuela. Now they are refugees living in Herriman and working in a manufacturing plant, scanning documents and folding boxes.
“I feel limited,” Ender Gonzalez said. His job doesn’t utilize any of the knowledge or experience he gained working as a doctor for so many years. However, because of their limited English skills, Ender and Amarilis are unable to work in their professional careers in this country.
Underemployment is the reality for most refugees, said SilviAnnie Silveira, who teaches English classes for adult refugees. She said many people who were professionals in their home country end up working at fast food restaurants when they relocate to the United States.
“So next time you're going to get a burger, you might be getting one made by a doctor or a business owner or a professor or a nurse, because that's who they are,” Silveira said. “It hurts them, not just financially, but their sense of self-worth. Their self-esteem is really bruised right now, but you know what? They keep going. They have this unshakable faith and they just keep going. I think this is a golden opportunity for the Herriman community to learn resilience with and from them. They teach me every day how you can restart your life and recreate and reinvent yourselves because that's what they're doing and that takes an immense amount of humility, of good attitude and faith.”
Ender and Amarilis are students in Silveira’s English class offered through Jordan District’s Family Engagement Center. Ender Gonzalez said learning English has been difficult but he remembers all the long days of studying and hard work it took to become a doctor.
“I have a background as a hard worker, so I think about that, and so I will learn,” he said.
The Gonzalez family fled Venezuela where they were being persecuted and oppressed.
“The situation became very tense for us,” Ender Gonzalez said. “The pressure grew to the point that I received death threats.”
Starting over in Utah has required a lot of sacrifice, but the Gonzalezes express gratitude for their situation.
“The peace and tranquility we have here is priceless,” Ender Gonzalez said. “It was a huge frustration that I couldn't give a nice life to my kids, but now, here, they have all the opportunities to develop themselves and to grow.”
Amarilis Gonzalez said working in manufacturing is very different from her job at the university training school teachers—she has traded her professional fashion shoes for steel-toed safety shoes—but she is not complaining.
“I learn, and I do it with all my heart, because this helps me to help my family and to move forward,” she said.
Ender and Amarilis would like to return to working as a doctor and a professor, if they can. But like many refugees, they have to first master a new language and a new culture.
The Family Engagement Center, housed at Copper Mountain Middle School, offers many resources to refugee families. It first opened in 2020 as part of Jordan District’s Language and Culture Department. Parents receive help navigating school registration, applying for the free lunch program, connecting with free dental and health clinics, accessing food and clothing and other necessities for settling into their new culture.
Silveira said when parents don’t have English skills and are unaware of how to be involved in their child’s education, their child is more likely to drop out of school or get involved in gangs.
At the Family Engagement Center, Silveira teaches English as well as other classes to help adults transfer their skills into their new culture. She walks them through the process of how to replace their driver's license with a valid Utah license. Another class familiarizes computer-savvy adults with English computer keyboard commands.
Through the Department of Language and Culture Services, families can access community resources, interpretation services and bilingual psychologists and teacher specialists.
“We have an amazing team, but the problem is just the volume of people that we have to serve,” Silveira said. “We are all trying our best here.”
In November 2022, Jordan District reported it had 62 refugees, 740 newcomers and 4,778 English Language Learners representing over 63 different languages.
Many schools are in desperate need of bilingual teachers, assistants and secretaries because their bilingual employees are getting burned out because they have so much they are asked to do, Silveira said.
Silveira believes every school needs a Family Engagement Center. She encourages community members to ask their school principals and local legislators to provide this resource in their neighborhoods to prepare for the continued influx of families. She said doing nothing is not an option.
“Whatever the community puts on these people who are now part of the community, that will come back, in a much better way or in a much more challenging way, it depends on what the community decides to do right now,” Silveira said. “The most intelligent thing to do is to help them to be absorbed by the Herriman community. Otherwise, what's going to happen is, if it's a problem that you don't take care of, it will become your problem sooner or later. So, I think it's everyone's opportunity to keep helping.”
Silveira said the Family Engagement Center would be more effective with support from volunteer community members. Volunteers can listen to students read, help them practice interview skills or explain cultural norms. She is also looking for people to share their expertise on topics such as job skills, taxes, computer skills, healthcare, immigration, legal issues or other topics her students need support in.
Amarilis Gonzalez said it would be helpful if there was someone who knew the equivalency and diploma validation process for a specific industry to assist those who want to resume their professions here in Utah.
“That's our next big challenge,” Silveira said. “To help them with this equivalency of the professional careers they had [in their country] and how they can serve the community and live better.”
Silveira said she can’t do it alone and asks for more support. She is overworked and emotionally strained by the stories her students share, but ultimately, she loves her job.
“There hasn't been one single day that I haven’t left the classroom richer or more humble or with a deeper desire to offer more, to make myself someone better so I can teach them better,” she said. “They're amazing people.”