This spot near Kingsley and Audelia would be almost nondescript if it weren’t for the poster-board flags on the walls or the exotic-sounding accents floating quietly around the room.
About a dozen people sit peering into computer monitors, typing slowly. A couple of others struggle through a 10-key exercise.
Dr. Akout De Dut sits at the front of the room, talking in a soft voice about where the women here 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: Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Sierra Leone. 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, a Lake Highlands-based agency of the Catholic Charities of Dallas, Inc. A Sudanese transplant herself (she moved to the U.S. in September 2000), De Dut knows what these women are going through. She also works full-time as a refugee 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,” De Dut says. “A lot of them work in housekeeping, or warehouses, doing laundry. And the pay is low.”
For many, the situation was reversed in the countries they orginated from. They might not have felt safe in the streets, but professionally, they weren’t starting at the bottom. Many were teachers, business owners or even housewives, De Dut says.
In this country, however, without command of the language, experience with computers or even a resume, they struggle to pay the bills. To care for their children. To keep their dignity.
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 Afghanistan, who wasn’t allowed to learn anything in her own culture, to come to Dallas and work somewhere like Foley’s. 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 format a resume.
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.”
The class, taught twice a year, has been popular. Eighty-one women have graduated. Atiyat Abdalla is one of the program’s success stories. After completing the course, she got a job at Target and started selling Mary Kay. She moved out of her brother’s apartment and into one of her own.
“She lost weight, she was happy and became self-sufficient,” De Dut says. “She was more confident and her English was better.”
Last De Dut heard from Abdalla, she was trying to get a job at Home Depot. “She really wants to work there.”
Twenty-five year old Ablavi Agama, who took the course last fall and was one of its star pupils, recently came to the U.S. from Togo, West Africa, where she sold purses and shoes in a market. Though she’s now working at Parkland Hospital in housekeeping, she hopes to get a better job to support herself and her 5-year-old daughter, Nadine.
“If you come here, you become ‘zero,’” she says, indicating that’s a good thing as far as she’s concerned. “And then you can improve yourself. I want to get off entry-level jobs.”
It’s stories like this have caused many Lake Highlands residents to support the program with donations of pens, paper, books and computers. One area woman even brought in makeup for the students.
“We haven’t bought a thing,” Shearer says.
Area churches such as St. Patrick’s and Lake Highlands Church have been particularly supportive as well, hosting the program’s graduations.
“I think they like the fact that we’re trying to mainstream people,” Shearer says.
So does the Citigroup Foundation of Irving, which awarded the agency with a $15,000 grant late last year.
“We just love the program,” says Debbie Taylor, director of corporate relations for the Citigroup Foundation, based out of Irving.
“First of all, we think highly of the Catholic Charities, as a well run agency and one that fills a need other agencies aren’t meeting, especially with the immigrant population. And that particular program fits the Citigroup philosophy of helping people to help themselves. The program helps get them on their feet and build assets so that they can be contributing citizens.”
For many women in the program, even being thought of as citizens opens up a world of possibility.
“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 the program also covers what she calls “empowerment skills:” how to dress professionally, 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.”