This place near Kingsley and Audelia would be almost nondescript if it weren’t for the poster-board flags on the walls or the lilts of exotic-sounding accents floating around the room.

 

 

          About a dozen people sit at computers typing slowly. A couple of others struggle through a 10-key exercise.

 

 

          Dr. Akout De Dut sits at the front of the room, near the door, talking in a soft voice about where the women in the room come from and what many of them have been through. Some are Mexican immigrants. A few come from Europe, Asia and the Middle East . Others are from countries in Africa: , , , Eritea, , , and . What most have in common is that their journeys originated in poverty-stricken countries. Or, worse yet, countries ravaged by civil war and corruption, situations that made the lives of many of the women in this room a living hell.

 

 

          When they came to the States, the hell stopped, and opportunity presented itself. Most have at least part-time jobs, some work more than one job. But now, in this room, they’re not trying to escape the nightmare of war or poverty; they’re just trying to escape the drudgery of words like “low income,” and “entry level.”

 

 

          In this room, Dr. De Dut and another instructor, Doris Kwenda, teach the Retail and Life Skills Program run by the Charities Home Center , an agency of the Catholic Charities of Dallas, Inc.  A Sudanese transplant herself (she moved to the in September 2000), De Dut knows what these women are going through. She also works as a case manager for the International Rescue Committee.

 

 

          “It’s a challenge just for most of the women to come to class. They have work, they take care of their kids. Many of them don’t have transportation,” says De Dut. “A lot of them work in housekeeping, or warehouses, doing laundry. And the pay is low.”

 

 

          For many, the situation was reversed at home. They might not have felt safe in the streets, but professionally, they weren’t starting at the bottom.

 

 

          “Where they came from, they might have owned businesses or been teachers or even been housewives,” De Dut says.

 

 

          In this country, however, without a command of the language or any experience with computers, they struggle to pay the bills. To care for the children. To keep their dignity.

 

 

 

 

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          It’s for these reasons that neighborhood resident Elizabeth Disco Shearer, administrator for Charities Home Center , started the Retail and Life Skills program three years ago.

 

 

          “I was seeing a pattern with women in poverty. Most of them were minorities, from various cultures. And they were having a cultural assimilation problem,” she says. “You can imagine what it’s like for a woman from , who wasn’t allowed to learn anything in her own culture, to come to Dallas and work somewhere like Foleys. What a transition that would be.”

 

 

          So the women are taught how to type, how to run a cash register, how to swipe a credit card. Near the end of the course, they run the front counter at Charities Home Center , which houses a resale store. They learn how to word a cover letter and what a resume is for.

 

 

If they don’t know English, they must tough it out. The program is taught using language immersion tactics.

 

 

          “We speak slowly,” Shearer says. “We use repetition and they pick it up pretty fast.”

 

 

So far, the class, taught twice a year, has been a success. Eighty-one women have graduated. At the end of last year, the agency was awarded a $15,000 grant by the Citigroup Foundation of Irving that will be used toward the program.

 

 

For many of the women in the program, however, the class is as much about the ‘life’ part as it is about the ‘retail.’

 

 

          “You can’t imagine what some of these women have been through, with abuse and mutilation and that sort of thing,” Shearer says. “A lot of them aren’t really even aware that they’re a person.”

 

 

          So they cover what she calls “empowerment skills:” how to dress, dental hygiene, goal-setting.

 

 

“You can’t just take the woman and give her technical skills,” Shearer adds. “You have to deal with the soul also.”