Jefferson Park volunteers host English classes and provide resources to migrants


A Northwest side non-profit community organization expanded their mutual aid efforts to migrants by creating English language courses for the new arrivals.

Jefferson Park community members have been working to provide support to migrants at Friendship Community Place (FCP), 5150 N. Northwest Hwy., in collaboration with Friendship Presbyterian Church, as a response to the fast growing number of migrants coming to Chicago.

Rev. Shawna Bowman, one of the pastors at the church helping run the efforts, said they started to create English courses after some migrants recently expressed their interest in learning the language. 

“There was some conversation about the need for an English as a second language class, specifically to help give tools to people to advocate for themselves,” Bowman said. 

Professionals from different industries in the neighborhood come in to lend support to their new neighbors by providing English classes and childcare during the class. 

Lena Charles, a local nurse and student in DePaul’s nurse practitioner program, and Rogelio Silva, a local physician and clinical professor at the University of Illinois, have been volunteering by teaching classes every Thursday evening to asylum seekers at FCP in their spare time. 

Lena Charles, a local nurse and volunteer, made worksheets for migrants to use during English as a second language classes at Friendship Community Place. These worksheets display essential phrases to help migrants communicate their basic needs. (Jonah Weber)
Migrants eat dinner at a police station in Jefferson park Chicago, across the street from Friendship Community Place on Oct. 12, 2023. (Jonah Weber)

“Every week we try to focus on something that is really usable and workable, talking about needs, emergencies, getting around, just really basic workable English to, again, be able to get around American society a little bit,” said Charles. 

Charles reviews the topics that will be discussed each week often focusing on pronunciation, simple phrases and putting phrases together. They also try to dedicate at least five to 10 minutes to U.S. civics related material. 

Each week, Charles and Silva print phrase worksheets in both English and Spanish to teach their class. They said they have been able to provide phrase books containing about 100 basic phrases in English and Spanish. 

In addition to providing English classes for adults, volunteers at FCP also focus on ensuring child care and activities for children while their parents are in class. 

Fannie Sanchez, a volunteer in the community and at FCP, is one of the community members that provides childcare. 

“We’ll help take care of the kids so that they [the parents] can do ESL, but at the same time, we’re also kind of sorting clothes, or coats or whatever the need is,” Sanchez said. “So when the kids are coming in and we see okay, wait, they need pants, or they need shoes, and we have it and we’re giving it to them.” 

Sanchez also volunteers at the police station across the street by providing translation services and other support to the migrants that are waiting there to be placed in a city shelter. 

Bowman has been working with the team at FCP and other community members, including Sanchez to lend support where they can, including legal support, FCP has also opened up their office space to be used for migrants to meet with case managers. This helps them to do intake and speeds up their ability to get work permits, said Bowman.

Charles and Silva occasionally provide advice or resources to migrants that express medical concerns. 

The type of support that Sanchez provides to migrants ranges from collecting resources to moral support, she said. Moral support for migrants is important to establish trust and make sure they know “we are here to help,” Sanchez added.

“They’re in survival mode. They are in fight or flight, right? So now they have to adjust to trying to follow a structure in the police station or a shelter,” Sanchez said. “It’s hard for that…So I think it’s more of a support in showing them that we are here to help them and that they can trust us.” 

Maria, a migrant who recently landed in Chicago, who chose not to disclose her last name fearing repercussions, said that her journey was long and difficult. When traveling, Maria had to take a train to be able to get to Mexico and seek asylum at the border. 

“That’s like a boxcar, you get inside it, so you can ride the train. When you run out of water, it’s terrible, you get really dry lips. There’s no food, no water, nothing is left for the kids. You get sick, the heat is terrible, you cook in the heat,” said Maria, in Spanish. “Since we arrived here… we spent two months at the police station.” 

After two months of sleeping on the floor at the police station, Maria and her family were finally transferred to a shelter. But the shelter, she said, is not a safe space for her and her children, so she instead goes back to FCP for meals on Thursdays. 

Cover Photo: Lena Charles and Rogelio Silva teach English as a second language classes at Friendship Community Place on Thursday Oct. 12. These classes help migrants learn phrases they need to advocate for themselves.

(Photo by Jonah Weber)

Publisher’s Notes: You can read Alyssa’s Spanish language version of Jefferson Park volunteers host English classes and provide resources to migrants by clicking on Voluntarios de Jefferson Park ofrecen clases de inglés a los migrantes.

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