Defunding of Adult Literacy Programs Challenge Immersion Efforts

By Jessica Cartwright

Photo credit: Jessica Cartwright

On the verge of tears, her face obscured by her heavy, burgundy headscarf, Nasim Begum describes the pain she feels when she cannot understand the language spoken during her children’s parent-teacher meetings at her neighborhood school in Brooklyn.

Without this English proficiency, immigrants cannot help their children with homework, communicate with their landlords, or even speak to their doctors.

Begum is one of seventeen Pakistani women fighting to reestablish their English classes after sharp budget cuts this year to adult literacy funding across New York City.

“I want to contribute, but when I can’t understand I feel ashamed,” she said with tentative English.

The Pakistani women’s English classes were a causality of some $4.75 million that was cut this year from the city’s adult literacy programs. This extensive budget cut resulted in the loss of over 4,000 seats, including those at the Council of Jewish Organizations community center in the Kensington area of Brooklyn, where Begum was learning English. With the loss of the English classes, these Pakistani women will remain part of the statistic of 1.7 million New Yorkers that do not have English literacy proficiency.

Before the literacy classes were cut from the community center, the Department of Youth and Community Development were funding two classes a day with 25 people, mostly women, in each class. As an expert in the importance of adult literacy, Kevin Douglas from United Neighborhood Houses said adult education is often seen as a secondary need, an attitude that often causes problems for immigrants across the nation who struggle with speaking and reading English.

The issue of adult literacy is a problem across the nation with a direct correlation between literacy and the ability to earn a decent wage. According to the American Literacy Project Foundation, over 45% of American adults have an income that is below the poverty line due to a lack of English literacy.

“For people to truly be integrated into their communities, the most basic thing they need is the ability to communicate with their neighbors, and understand the world around them,” Douglas said.

Daily tasks as simple as checking the mailbox are a constant struggle for these women. And what they find inside is often in a foreign language. When their children can’t translate for them, they are left helpless.

Abida Aftab has been living in New York for ten years and was attending the English classes for a month before the school closed. She said that since her children have grown up and left home, everything in her daily life is a problem without her homegrown English translators. When news of the closed language classes reached her the women studying English they cried, Aftab said.

“This is totally wrong,” she said. “Why they cut the classes, especially when we are talking about women empowerment?” she said.

These English classes have given the women a better life here, some of them say. One has even managed to receive citizenship after attending the classes for three years. Maqsooda Begum passed her citizenship test last month, but she said she feels she needs to continue practicing English so she does not have to constantly rely on her adult son to provide for the family.

Struggling to find the words, she said, “My head and heart is broken. We feel our dream is broke.”

The Pakistani women said depending on a translator for daily life infuriates them. They also said they will refuse to let go of their vital English literacy classes, which is why, they added, they are continuing the fight to reinstate the funding to the classes.

In the meantime, some of the women say they are finding hope in other centers like the Brooklyn Rebuild Immigrant Community and Knowledge Center in Kensington. Shahid Khan, who operates the Kensington center, said his main focus there is teaching community Pakistani children traditional culture and the Urdu language. However when the women came to him in for help with English, he said it was impossible to ignore their anguish.

“I want to empower them to have better opportunities, so they know, what is the process and what are the problems, how to face the reality,” he said.

A large mural of the New York City skyline dominates the back wall of Shahid’s colorful, single-story community center. This mural seems to embody everything these women want to achieve by learning English: A chance for more, the promise to be part of more than just, what they call, the ‘little Pakistan’ of Brooklyn.

For Begum the group’s English classroom is more than just a classroom. She said it is a place where they can support one another, share ideas, and solve problems together. She said that after 20 years in the U.S. she wants to be more involved in the world outside her front door.

“No English, no school,” she said. “Everyday cook, clean house, children, laundry. Everyday.”

With the help of Khan’s community-learning center and his connections at New York University, the women have been able to find volunteer student teachers to take over the classes. Still, Khan said they need funding, from the New York Office of Adult and Continuing Education, for materials and learning resources.

The English language classes have drawn members from other cultures in Kensington, like Rokshana Banu from Bangladesh. She said the classes have taught her to properly write in English, but she acknowledged that her spoken English needs more work.

Rokshana said that without the classes she feels that something is missing from her life.

“With the English classes I am happy,” she said with a soft, fading smile. “When I lost them, I lost my happiness.”