By Lars Akerson, contributor
When Omar Al Sadoon told the case worker from the Department of Social Services that he wanted work as an electrician, she was incredulous. It was too much, Omar recalls her saying. He needed much better English and training in U.S. electrical standards before he could think about getting a job as an electrical tradesman in Virginia.
Five years later, Omar is checking off that list with the help of Skyline Literacy. Just one course at Massanutten Technical Center is all that separates him from finding a job as an electrician in the Shenandoah Valley. When he does, it will be a return to a trade that supported him and his young family as they migrated across Iraq and Syria before arriving in the Shenandoah Valley in 2015.
As a teenager in Baghdad, Omar apprenticed as an electrician under his uncle. It was respectable work that provided him a measure of financial security. It was also a skill he could take with him when his family emigrated to Syria amidst the U.S.-led Iraq War. Similar electrical standards in the two countries allowed Omar to quickly find work on the outskirts of Damascus.
In Syria, Omar and his wife, Fatimah, managed to get by as prolonged drought, followed by civil war, drove up the cost of living and destabilized their new home. But after a U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes, they fled again – this time with two young children – first to Jordan, then to the United States.
Extended family in Harrisonburg welcomed the family of four and a brother-in-law helped Omar find a job at Perdue. Shift work in the poultry and food service industries helped Omar provide for his family, but it didn’t agree with him.
“I wanted to improve myself and be able to offer something to this community,” he said.
So, juggling multiple jobs, the couple joined English classes in the community. After a couple years of classes, they decided in 2019 that Omar would enroll in a course on basic electrical theory at Massanutten Technical Center.
He attended lectures, but he was lost. It had been years since his last math class – in Arabic. Returning home after failing his first test, he told Fatimah, “this is the end for me. I don’t have to work as an electrician.”
But his instructor at MTC encouraged Omar not to give up. Skyline Literacy offered one-on-one tutoring that could help him relearn the math and gain the vocabulary he needed. After a couple months of tutoring with Skyline volunteer and retired math teacher Anne Riley, Omar reenrolled in January 2020. This time, despite being interrupted by the pandemic, he passed the course. A semester later, he’s finished the second of three, on residential wiring.
Omar’s dream feels within his reach. “When I get a job as an electrician,” he says, “I want to go back to the woman in social services and tell her what I’ve done.”
Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing trying to go to school in a pandemic. While Supervisor of Adult Programs Sandy Rinker says MTC has implemented health education, self-screening, and social distancing protocols in order to continue in-person learning, the Al Sadoon children are now adjusting to the rhythm of school from home with the Harrisonburg City Public Schools.
This transition has been easier for their middle schooler, but the long Zoom classes test their first-grader’s attention span, so Fatimah stays home to help them with their classes. Meanwhile, instead of providing a more stable work schedule as he had hoped, the job Omar took as a medical transporter just before the pandemic hit has become more demanding. Few of his colleagues want to take shifts in the current health climate and the dispatcher often calls with last-minute appointments.
But the family continues toward their goals. Since entering the pandemic, Omar and Fatimah applied for U.S. citizenship and are preparing for their citizenship interview and exams with the help of Skyline Literacy and Church World Service (CWS). The organizations won a two-year, $250,000 grant in 2019 to assist 250 local residents in their applications for citizenship.
The funds, awarded by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, allow CWS to provide legal support and filing assistance for applicants, while Skyline Literacy prepares them for the English and civics exams that are part of the application process.
Director Nelly Moreno Shenk says Skyline Literacy is adapting to the demands of the pandemic, including moving to online instruction. In the first year of the grant cycle, 125 students participated in Citizenship Preparation classes. She is hopeful the program can also meet their proposed enrollment goals in the second year.
If the Department of Homeland Security program invites proposals in 2021, Skyline will seek another round of funding. The Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program funds, for which the organization has applied five times and twice been denied, accounts for nearly half of its annual budget.
Though shelter-in-place orders dampened overall outreach and enrollment this year, the organization has seen an increase in new applications for their citizenship class. Skyline reports 79 enrollees in the class so far this year. A recent info session, interpreted into four languages, was attended by an additional 18 prospective students.
Meanwhile, Moreno Shenk has been working to secure additional funding to help Skyline lower barriers to participation in online classes. To date, the organization has built a library of 20 tablets available for student use, a collection she hopes to expand to better serve the more than 300 adult learners receiving classes or individualized tutoring from Skyline each year.
While the USCIS funding helps Skyline provide services to legal permanent residents on the path to citizenship, Moreno Shenk is quick to point out that Skyline provides services to English language learners regardless of their immigration status. These services are supported through smaller grants, individual donations, and partnerships with local initiatives including the Gus Bus and the On the Road Collaborative.
But Moreno Shenk still worries that students may be falling through the cracks. Online learning only goes so far and can be difficult to access for the most basic language learners. She would like to be able to hire additional staff to support virtual learning and individualized follow-up.
For Omar and Fatimah, however, Skyline has opened vocational horizons that seemed to have disappeared. A year after they connected with Skyline, the couple continues their regular meetings with tutor Anne, which now happen over Zoom. The topics still include English and sometimes math, but they also review civics questions so they will be ready when USCIS calls.
The three talk most weekdays now, since Anne has begun joining Fatimah by video chat to help tutor the youngest Al Sadoon through their first-grade exercises. With improved English, the parents are also glad to play a more active role in their children’s formal education. “Now we can talk with their teachers,” Omar says. “Children are always watching what their parents do. They see when you show interest in learning. They see that education is important.”
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