The Dayton area has long been a haven for refugees from many nations. In 2011, the city established “Welcome Dayton,” an initiative created to assist refugees with relocation. According to the Welcome Dayton website, immigrant population increased by 41% for the duration of the program - between 2011 and 2013, with people coming to Dayton from more than 100 countries.
But most immigrants coming to the local area do not speak or understand English – a skill basic to finding and keeping work and housing and taking care of day-to-day needs.
“We got involved when Dayton had an influx of refugees from South Africa about three years ago,” said Sophia Davies, the director of vocational services with Goodwill Easter Seals of the Miami Valley (GESMV). “It was too much to try to put them all out in the workplace without any knowledge of English.”
But at that time, GESMV had no volunteers or staff who could speak any of the 35 native languages of South Africa. So she and her team set out to find a curriculum on the Internet and worked with local churches to host English as a Second Language (ESL) programs in small group settings.
“One of our case managers became an instructor,” Davies said. “We used an interpreting service and incorporated English as much as possible.”
Seven years ago, Neayambeje Kalinda immigrated to the United States from Uganda, after being forced to flee his native country – the Democratic Republic of the Congo – with his parents and siblings in 1996. Eventually Kalinda found his way to Dayton and today is helping South African refugees build better lives.
“I lived with my parents in a refugee camp with my family for nine years until my parents had to return to Congo,” Kalinda said. “I stayed behind to finish school.”
After spending 22 years in the camp, Kalinda was finally given an opportunity to resettle in the United States in 2015.
“I came straight to Chicago first,” Kalinda said. “I hadn’t finished high school but when I got there, I had to start working so I could pay for food, electricity and housing. Fortunately, I already spoke English.”
Kalinda set a goal to graduate high school and going to college and eventually did just that, attending the City College of Chicago where he got an associate degree in political science in 2018. He attended Northeastern University to get his bachelor’s degree. Then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, he transitioned to online classes and decided to move to Cleveland.
“I quickly decided I didn’t want to stay in Cleveland,” Kalinda said. “I looked for another opportunity and that brought me to Dayton.”
With a friend already living here, Kalinda had a place to stay. He found his first job in Dayton – as a supervisor at Energizer in Vandalia - and quickly found his own housing. After four months, he moved on to another job– with the Dayton Public Schools working in student management. Though he was excited to work with young people, the job itself turned out to be mostly data entry. Then he spotted an opening with GESMV for a program manager.
“People at Goodwill asked me if I had ever worked as a teacher,” Kalinda said. “They needed someone to teach English to refugees.”
Kalinda speaks seven languages, including English and French, so he was a perfect fit to help teach ESL classes. And today he teaches five days per week.
“Being able to understand what my students have been through is important,” Kalinda said. “Some of them never attended school in their lives.”
Kalinda’s classes have been so successful that he is often asked how he teaches with no formal educational background. Usually within two to three months, his students are speaking and understanding basic English.
“It helps for me to learn their expectations and to communicate mine first thing,” Kalinda said.
Teaching ESL involves more than just language. Kalinda helps his students build their skills and learn how to manage day-to-day life in the U.S., including finding and keeping employment, organizing their schedules and paying bills.
According to Davies, the addition of Kalinda to their team has made a huge difference because it has added a more personal touch – something they didn’t have with downloaded curricula.
“Having someone here that can share his experience and who knows how to relate to others in their own languages and in English has helped tremendously,” Davies said. “When we speak English, we don’t think about it, but he changes things up for each person so they can understand. His strategies are helpful because he is exactly like them.”
Kalinda recently became a US citizen and stands as an example of a success story for his students and everyone he meets.
“In the end, we are all just humans,” Kalinda said. “I enjoy helping people and seeing them finish my classes and becoming employed makes me feel very grateful.”