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Why Afghan refugees met 37th Training Wing instructors

  • Published
  • By Miriam Thurber
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

The wind whipped sand across her face and a generator hummed in the background as Davina Farrell stepped off the plane. It was October 2021, and Farrell, an English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language instructor, and seven of her colleagues, had just left the 37th Training Wing with a mission: Prepare Afghan evacuees for integration into the United States by teaching them basic English.

The timing was perfect — the Defense Language Institute English Language Center where Farrell has worked for nearly 11 years had just developed a new American Language Course to equip non-English speakers with a base layer of everyday vocabulary. The course, ALC-Fundamentals, was designed to help new students in the 37th TRW succeed in future, intermediate English classes, and to help them navigate life in the United States. ALC-Fundamentals was initially created as a three-week, 90-hour language course to meet the unique needs of service members from partner nations whose first language is significantly different from English, meaning that their native language doesn’t share the Latin alphabet or grammar structure. The material easily translated for use with the evacuees at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. 

“Everyone was excited about the assignment and looked forward to contributing and making a difference with this population,” said Farrell, the team’s lead. “All the instructors had previous experience with Afghan students and felt a connection.” 

When the team arrived at Holloman, they unloaded the course materials, a collection of posters and flashcards, and began administering a series of placement tests to gauge their students’ knowledge. Evacuees eager to learn English lined up to secure a spot in the class, and, although participation was completely voluntary, all 80 student slots were filled on the first day. 

Some of the students had worked with U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, while others, including a female dentist, had dedicated years to civilian careers they hoped to continue in the United States. According to Sheri Padilla, one of the ESL/EFL Instructors, all the students hoped that improving their English would “help them take advantage of the vast opportunities in the U.S.”

“The simple act of teaching and sharing our culture meant so much to them,” said Lisa Lundien, an ESL/EFL Instructor with 10 years of experience at DLIELC. “I believe that we represented America to those with whom we came in contact, and I was proud to be a part of this mission.”

Anne Griffin, an ESL/EFL instructor, echoed Lundien’s thoughts, saying “it was a privilege to number ourselves amongst our students’ first U.S. contacts as they began their new lives in this country.”

The course lasted three weeks and primarily focused on teaching the students how to tell time, describe people and shop -- all in English. Farrell and her team hung up posters with clock faces and arranged flashcards of produce to guide their students through the new vocabulary. According to Padilla, one of her students, an Afghan grade school teacher, sat up taller when they covered school-related words, and her eyes lit up whenever she got the chance to share her job with her classmates. Often, as aircraft engines roared to life in the distance, the instructors would listen to their students tell stories and then build connections between the evacuees’ experiences and the English vocabulary. 

“What I enjoyed most was learning about their life stories and how they plan to make a difference using what they’d learned from their past,” said ESL/EFL Instructor Hadel Bilal.

“This experience reminded me that you are never too old to learn a new language,” said ESL/EFL Instructor Nickola Wilson-Chung. “Providing the opportunity of learning English to our Afghan allies was a great honor, and a chance for me to once again be in service to my country by helping future citizens become acclimated to the United States.” 

At the end of the course, the team unanimously considered the mission a success. Padilla and her colleagues agreed that “although language learning is a long-term effort, we could see their confidence grow as they began to speak more and expand their vocabulary. The honor of teaching them was an invaluable gift to each instructor.” 

According to Farrell, not only were the students “overwhelmingly grateful” for the class, but they also expressed the desire to continue studying English and honing their skills. “The Afghan population is determined to be successful,” she said. “They will achieve great things and contribute lots to U.S. society.” 

The team returned to the 37th TRW after completing the mission where they continue teaching ALC-Fundamentals and other English courses to service members from partner nations. DLIELC is the leader in English language training for the Department of Defense and is the first stop in the United States for many international allies and partners for military training. DLIELC is focused on the National Defense Strategy and Department of Defense priorities, building security cooperation capabilities in U.S. partners through English language training and cultural immersion.