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Starting with ABC’s in helping refugees

Local woman finds blessing in working with refugees in Albania
Etta has been teaching English to refugees in a picturesque Albanian town

OUTLOOK - Her heart was open to going wherever people might need her help, and that desire took her to Albania where she is finding blessing in teaching English classes to refugees

Etta (pseudonym), a 22-year-old woman from Outlook, has spent the last three months in Albania where a resort area has been re-purposed to welcome an influx of displaced persons seeking refugee status.

When she heard there was need for more language instructors, Etta, who is pursuing a degree in community development, felt it was an opportunity to apply knowledge she had gained, and walk alongside those in another part of the world.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says Albania has witnessed a stark increase in the number of refugees crossing into its borders over the last few years. Some have made their way to a town where Etta has been teaching English classes for the past few months.

The Albanian town, population just under 9,000, is filled with small stores, an abundance of apartments and hotels for tourists, and a wide variety of restaurants.  Etta lives in a two-room apartment she shares with a roommate. To one side of her building is the coast, and to the other is a small mountain. The picturesque location is a 20-minute bike ride from a bird sanctuary and the nearest city, and a 10-minutes walk to the resort where refugees are living and where the classrooms are located.

Etta teaches children ages 6-13. “These kids are so bright and learn fast,” she remarked. “In fact, they are learning English at a faster rate than I am learning how to teach.”

She said she is amazed at her students’ ability to learn languages and how many different ones they already know. She, in turn, is studying as well. “I have been slowly learning some of their basic local language.  A friend of mine, who translates in my classes, has been teaching me phrases, and practicing with me.  I hope to continue learning.”

She has four different classes she meets with twice each week with a class size that ranges from 12-23 students. “Some of these children are more advanced,” Etta said. “Some are comfortable writing and some are just beginning.”

She teaches English using topics that include food, toys, family, clothes, and animals. The eagerness of her students allows her to be creative in the classroom. “They love games, are very competitive, and jump at the chance to help in class,” she said. Popular games with the children are musical chairs and Simon Says.

Etta is very aware how important consistency is at a time when the children have experienced so much uncertainty. “Routine is necessary for both the children and I,” Etta explained. “Routines bring consistency to this strange time of transition when everything has been flipped upside down and turned upright again.” She has developed a classroom plan that allows her students to know what to expect when they come to class. “We warm up, check our homework, learn something new, and then celebrate with a game.”

English skills are essential since the majority of the refugees she has met hope to one day get to Canada or the United States. Beginning to learn here in Albania will hopefully make the transition easier, and give them skills to communicate and allow them to be more employable,” she said.

Getting to know those who find themselves in such circumstances has been inspiring to Etta. “These people are incredibly strong. The time of waiting is very hard; waiting without clear dates, without the surety of safety for their family. Everything is unstable. They are strong, but it is hard. It is a situation I cannot imagine. Pray for them.”

The lives these refugees left behind are ones that included homes, careers, extended family and the pursuit of achievements. “A major thing that I had not considered is that they are the educated people of their country,” Etta shared. “Some of them are doctors, lawyers, worked in intelligence or women’s advocacy.  They have professions, and years and years of experience. This is something that will be very hard to transition internationally. My hope is that as they come into North America they would find ways to use their skills and experiences.”

In the three months she has been in Albania, Etta has enjoyed getting to know some of the nationals, too. “I have met a few Albanians,” she said. “One of the people on our team is Albanian.  She is our go-to for cultural questions, but also has become a good friend.”

The day-to-day interactions have become meaningful to her. “The shopkeepers, waiters, and those who go out walking every day have been fun to see on a regular basis. There is something so special about these people becoming a normal part of life. It makes it seem more like home.”

Etta will soon be coming back to Canada, having had an experience she will cherish. “It is such a blessing to be welcomed into these people's lives. Not only is it a blessing, but when I take the time to breathe, look at the people around me, and to be with them, I am grounded once again.  While our time here may be short, it has been impactful.”

Her hope for these refugees is that they will soon have the opportunity to begin building new lives in another part of the world. “I pray that as they come to Canada and America that the people there may receive them with open arms and be blessed, as I have by them.”