Lasmia can’t tell you how old she is, but she does know it took four years for her to reach safety after leaving her hometown of Ta’iz in Yemen when civil war broke out. Lasmia never went to school. In her family, like many, whatever little money there was went to educating the boys. She didn’t mind, but she was left unable to read or write and she could not even spell her name. 

When her neighbors started dying one by one, Lasmia fled with eight children and two grandchildren. They had a little money so through contacts they managed to get across to Ethiopia, but weren’t permitted to stay there. From there they moved from camp to camp, and sadly, she lost two children to disease. She doesn’t know the name of the disease, but she still weeps every day. The family kept moving, and, finally, she was sent with one child and two grandchildren to New York. She thought that she was leading the way for the whole family, but then the travel ban was enforced. Now she doesn’t know where her family are. She hasn’t seen her other children since arriving but she knows she will.  

Lasmia, today, is learning English with FeLT NYC. She comes to class and studies every day, using her post-it notes as a way to help. She’s also helping her Uzbeki neighbor learn English. 

Mama D’aillo is from The Congo and has been waiting on official asylum for four years, she is here legally but the wheels of immigration are slow and only getting slower. She speaks seven languages but she can’t read or write in any of them. She was displaced for twelve years before arriving in the US and to try to get ahead on the list, she worked cooking and cleaning for anyone she thought could help her family. 

She studies with FeLT NYC through our Survivors of Torture Program and with our help she is learning to read and write. Her goal is to get a job that will let her take weekends off. It’s a small goal, but she has to work many hours just to survive in NY and she’d love to have time to explore with her kids. First, she must save money. Her family of six live in one room together.

Now when she meets people she says “hi, I speak seven languages, what about you?”

These wonderful and brave women are why I founded FeLT NYC. FeLT NYC, (a 501 c 3) is a non-profit which provides immigrants and refugee women with safe and free education. But this isn’t my story and I’m not the hero. I simply opened doors and an amazing group of people entered my life.

I, too, am an immigrant but you probably wouldn’t call me one. Instead, people use “expat.” Why? Because I am white and British. But I am an immigrant, and it’s immigrants like Lasmia and Mama D’aillo who make this country beautiful.

I’m an educator so I know the power of education and learning. The doors it can open and the opportunities it presents. However, some communities haven’t been helped; instead, they were being targeted and ripped apart. Students would drop out of classes and hide away as they were scared of being attacked (verbally or physically).  It is a catch 22 situation, immigrants need education, they need language skills to enhance their job prospects or deal with the every day necessities of life, but they were underserved in education and felt unprotected.  
That’s when I decided that I needed to do something to help. My own immigration experience was one of freedom and courtesy, and I am acutely aware that I have extreme privilege due to the location of my birth. And FeLT NYC was born.

Now some basic facts:  there are many free ESL in classes in NYC, but they have the capacity to help only 45% of the need.  Women-only classes are a rarity, especially in literacy.  However, women make up the bulk of immigrants and often lack the language skills. In many immigrant families the woman stays at home, she raises the children and runs the household, immigrant men are usually working jobs with unsociable hours, or away from the home. The women put everything they have into making sure that their children and spouse have the best opportunities in their chosen country.  The last thing they have money for is their own education.

At FeLT, we give immigrant and refugee women the chance to learn skills for free. We provide classes in literacy, ESL, violence prevention and entrepreneurship. We work out of public schools and we allow the women to bring their children, we host play sessions for the children while the mamas learn. We also teach Survivors of Torture at Bellevue hospital. We work with the community because we know that the best communities are diverse and full of cultures and languages.

Everything we do is on a voluntary basis and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that our teachers are amazing people. They give up their time to empower others and I know I am a better person because of them. I feel the same way about the students. We celebrate every success, like Felicitas from Peru, who dedicated her life to making sure her kids got the best education possible.  Now her children are working as a doctor and a dentist, so only now does she allow herself time to learn. We all cried tears of happiness when she surprised her family by standing up at her son’s wedding and giving a speech in English for the very first time. 

Teaching one woman to read, to feel more confident in her English, to learn how to get citizenship, may not seem like much, but to our students, it’s life changing.