For Utah refugee families, the pandemic is a new obstacle to learning English as a second language

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rosa, Kangaji, Hiana, Chibanda, Willy Chibangu and Tina, Daniel, Kanyeba, Joseph, & Ben at their home in Orem, Tuesday, May 26, 2020.

Tina Kanyeba and Willy Chibangu, who came to Utah nearly four years ago as refugees from Congo, are struggling to help their eight children finish classes from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s difficult,” Kanyeba said in an interview, “because English is not my best language.”

She said it was much easier when her kids went to school and received more help from teachers. The family is part of the 4.7% of Utah’s population — 135,808 people — who speak English “less than very well,” according to a 2018 Census Bureau American Community Survey.

Chibangu said the kids’ schools — Mountain View High School and Lakeridge Junior High School in Orem, and Vineyard Elementary School in Vineyard — have provided computers and books, but they didn’t give the family any extra resources to better understand the language. He said it has been difficult to learn English, and taking a translator everywhere is not realistic.

Kanyeba also said it’s harder to get three meals to all of their children now that the kids can’t get breakfast and lunch at school. “Now … we spend too much money to buy the food,” she said.

This family is not alone in struggling to provide food for their kids. A recent U.S. Census Bureau survey shows a third of Utah households report that they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat. Many are facing this challenge for the first time due to the pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak has also hit the refugee family hard because Chibangu lost his job and Kanyeba’s hours have been reduced to two days a week.

Fortunately, though, Kanyeba and Chibangu have help from Utah Valley Refugees. Once the pandemic hit, the nonprofit group collected donations and gave each refugee family a set of emergency supplies and gift cards. The organization also helps refugees cover rent during the pandemic.

(Utah Valley Refugees is taking donations online, at utahvalleyrefugees.org/donate, or through Venmo, at @uvr2019. Checks can be mailed to the group’s office, 125 E. 300 South, Provo, Utah, 84606. Call ahead, at 801-850-6013, before dropping off checks or in-kind donations.)

Leonard Bagalwa, founder and executive director of Utah Valley Refugees, is urging school districts to partner with local refugee agencies to get more help to English-as-a-second-language students.

“Local refugee agencies, they already know these refugees, they already connect to them," Bagalwa said. "We already solved the language barrier because we have interpreters who can help.” He said the nonprofit’s volunteers help children with their homework after school.

Bagalwa said refugee children don’t have any help with English at home because their parents don’t know the language fluently.

Paola, whose family immigrated from Peru, echoed this concern. She said the biggest challenge her children, ages 12 and 7, face is not being able to learn English in the classroom. (The Salt Lake Tribune agreed to identify Paola and the next two families only by their first or middle names because they fear prosecution for being undocumented.)

“They had their classes in English, where they were able to practice saying phrases and words,” Paola said. “And now, they don’t say it anymore because there is no more ... practice like they used to have in school."

The family immigrated to Utah a year and a half ago and is still learning the language. Paola said it is difficult to help her younger son complete his assignments from home because all of his homework is in English. Her 12-year-old son’s teacher is more flexible, and sends the classes and videos recorded in Spanish.

Paola said her children’s test scores have fallen since they started learning from home, but their schools are being more lenient with grading during the pandemic.

Miriam, whose family left Peru nine months ago to immigrate to the United States, said it is a challenge to help her children, 15 and 11, complete their homework.

“The difficulty has been coming from the language,” she said. “First, we have to translate and we have to interpret and then we have to respond to it.”

She said her oldest son understands more English and has been able to do his work independently, but her 11-year-old needs a lot of help from his parents.

“The truth is: Being at home, I feel that they have slowed their progress because they have stopped learning English,” Miriam said. "Because the only time they would learn English would be at school.”

Before the pandemic, her kids weren’t struggling to complete assignments at Hidden Hollow Elementary School in Eagle Mountain, and received support from teachers and classmates.

But now their grades have dropped — despite the fact that Miriam can call or email teachers if she doesn’t understand the homework. She said the new responsibility to teach her kids from home is “like … having double the amount of work,” which makes it hard to give her kids her undivided attention.

Miriam’s family immigrated to Utah to give their children more opportunities. “My children feel very happy here and they feel safer,” she said. “They like the school, they like their friends, and they’re always telling me that they’re very happy to be here.”

Other families have been hit by the pandemic more directly. Patricia — who immigrated to Utah from Peru with her 11-year-old, 9-year-old and a 9-month-old baby — recently found out that her husband tested positive for COVID-19.

She and her three kids are asymptomatic now, but a few weeks ago the family had high fevers, headaches, discomfort and nausea and couldn’t get out of bed. The hospital told them to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Patricia told the principal at her children’s school, Black Ridge Elementary School, that the family tested positive. The Eagle Mountain school gave the kids more time to return their library books and Chromebook computers, and they got an extra week to turn in assignments.