December 2020
Refugee Concerns Newsletter



Dear readers,

I hope that this finds you well. I wanted to use this space to thank you for the important work that you are doing under very challenging circumstances. I am aware that many of us are dealing with losses and hardships stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the pandemic of systemic racism (Levine, 2020). If our RCIS community can be of assistance, please do not hesitate to post in our myTESOL forum. We have members working towards equity in different contexts around the world. We can learn from each other and offer support and recommendations. I wish you peace and joy in the new year.


Kristin Kibler RCIS Chair



In 2008, the language of instruction in Rwandan schools changed from French to English. Since most of the teachers had been trained in French, the transition was difficult. During a visit to Rwanda in 2019, Dr. Brenda Custodio visited the College Indashyikirwa, where I am a teacher. In order to help me build my own skills at teaching English and to help other Rwandan teachers build their capacities to deliver engaging lessons, she invited me to visit the United States in October 2019. Through a travel grant provided by Ohio TESOL, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit several different English classes at the secondary and college level in Columbus, Ohio, as well as to speak at both the Ohio TESOL Conference and the Refugee Integration Conference organized by US Together (a refugee resettlement organization who had sponsored Dr. Custodio’s trips to Rwanda).

While in Columbus, I spoke to Dr. Custodio about the possibility of establishing a program to train Rwandan educators on English language development and teaching methodology. Most Rwandan teachers used a teacher-centered approach, where they took much time in giving explanations and notes to students. Another issue was that they were using French or Kinyarwanda in this teaching-learning process. This did not encourage the development of English, which was selected by the government in an effort to better prepare students for life in a 21st-century world.

The main purpose of this training would be to increase the effectiveness of Rwandan teachers and develop a new cadre of Rwandan education leaders. We agreed to collaborate on the development, integration, and sharing of educational resources; this would facilitate Rwandan education’s goals for fostering leaders in global society and enabling Rwanda to develop as a knowledge-based economy. After the training, Rwandan educational leaders would return to their respective schools to infuse and communicate new creative teaching methods of English.

In January 2020, Dr. Custodio and Kathy Jimenez (another Ohio ESL teacher), conducted a fruitful training for ninety educators from different schools in the Rutsiro District of Rwanda. The training pushed Rwandan teachers to develop a passion for teaching in English. The instructors taught Rwandans different teaching techniques to make students stronger English communicators and helped them to prepare English lesson activities that promote students’ critical thinking, problem solving and creativity skills. The teachers were highly inspired by the relevant content that will help them shape the future of the Rwandan learners they teach.

The Rutsiro District Department of Education officers witnessed this training and saw it as a valuable resource in empowering teachers with the necessary skills and knowledge in English language. They were convinced that it would help them to become better educational leaders, catalysts for change and visionaries committed to the continuing improvement of Rwandan education. They asked Dr. Custodio to design the material for further trainings in Rwanda. The officers also asked me to travel around to different schools to do workshops on weekends. I conducted several workshops before the pandemic closed our schools and made travel impossible.

In the same line of thought, we then organized summer 2020 trainings for 270 Rwandan educators. Dr. Custodio sent all the information and training materials to me for its delivery.

One may think that the immediate switch to English in Rwandan education would create a gap in the quality of education, but it is not the case. Since that change, teachers have been willing to work on building their own English skills. With my help, they are fully committed to implementing this plan to move schools forward and help young Rwandan people be ready to communicate effectively in English and to compete in global business. The teachers have expressed very positive attitudes on the content and its delivery and have asked us to continue to work together closely. I hope to train an additional 7,218 teachers from different schools across the country in order to develop and enrich education in Rwandan schools.

Many thanks to Dr. Brenda Custodio, US Together and Ohio TESOL for their passion, commitment and their love for Rwanda.

Simeon Bimenyimana has been an English teacher in Rwanda for 18 years. He has a master’s degree in educational administration and management from the Private Institute of Technologies of Burkina Faso. He was taught by the University of Hartford in Connecticut to train teachers in Rwanda in English and Methodology. He is a teacher at the College INDASHYIKIRWA, a public secondary and vocational school in Rutsiro District of Rwanda.


Bashar Al Hariri

Fatmeh Alalawneh

Since the early days of the United States, refugees and immigrants have made up the fabric of American society as people from all over the world travelled here to start a new life. This remains true today, as new immigrants, refugees, and asylees continue to make the United States their new country of residence. One characteristic that many of these new Americans share is their limited English language skills. Both state and federal institutions have worked on creating adult ESL programs that would provide English language classes in order to prepare this population for the job market and support their integration into American society. As the majority of refugees have families to support, they have to find work as soon as they arrive and balance their job responsibilities, families, and English classes. All of this makes their English learning journey much more challenging. These social, economic, and professional circumstances heavily influence adult refugees’ progress and add to the barriers affecting their success.

One area of adult refugee education is ESL literacy classes. These classes are usually taught at community colleges, resettlement agencies, public libraries, non-profit organizations, and places of worship. A joint report of the National Center for Family Literacy and the Center for Applied Linguistics (2008) found that there are more than 35 million non-native English speakers in the United States. Of these, “close to 1.2 million individuals were enrolled in ESL classes in state-administered adult education programs” in addition to the students that attended ESL classes at other outlets (p. I-1).

Adult refugee ESL classes usually include students from different backgrounds with different English language levels, which complicates the nature of teaching methodologies, curriculum, and class dynamics. Teachers have to navigate these differences and create appropriate lessons that serve students’ needs while taking into consideration the cultural and social sensitivities that may arise. For example, an awareness of the social and cultural characteristics of each student population may influence teachers’ decisions in developing lessons and teaching materials that accommodate these sensitivities. In addition, the teachers’ knowledge of students’ linguistic backgrounds and former educational experiences may also contribute to their success both inside and outside the classroom. The diversity of adult refugee ESL classes is a rich resource for teachers to use in designing and developing their curriculum as, like other adult learners, these students join ESL programs to achieve a particular set of goals. Nonetheless, such student diversity also presents challenges for both teachers and students. One challenge is multilevel classes, which require teachers to accommodate the different needs of each level, all while maintaining an interactive class dynamic that does not privilege one level or the other. The National Center for Family Literacy and the Center for Applied Linguistics (2008) explains that preparing these lessons can be “time consuming, and classroom management may be challenging. Effective teaching of a multi-level class requires learning activities and materials that address the learning styles and skill levels of each learner in the class” (p. xiv).

Furthermore, Manton (1998) explains that one main challenge facing adults English learners is that curriculum and teaching materials may not meet students’ real-life needs. She adds that the parents with limited English skills in her adult ESL classes need to acquire language that would help them to support their children’s education, as they cannot become actively involved in school-related issues without English skills. To increase the relevance of the curricula used in adult ESL programs, Manton (1998) suggests that teachers take into consideration the real needs of their students and develop materials that correspond with these needs.

Furthermore, most adult refugee ESL students want to improve their language skills to improve their professional opportunities. However, many adult ESL curricula follow a more academic path. Much focus is given to grammar and academic skills, while other work-related communicative skills are not always included. Adult refugee ESL students need a specially-designed curriculum that corresponds to their professional goals and enables them to pursue promotions or better positions in their fields. To achieve this, vocational ESL (VESL) learning has been used to teach language skills while adult students perform their jobs. Gage and Prince (1982) point out that VESL curricula focus on implementing a three-step training, which starts with the experienced employee describing the action and the step included, providing corrections and feedback, and asking questions that would confirm the learner’s understanding. This process enables ESL students to learn how to perform specific tasks in spite of their limited language skills. In addition, VESL includes teaching ESL students work-related verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that would improve their ability to interact with their fellow workers. This can help them to communicate in real workplace situations, such as expressing when a task is completed or interrupted, talking about work safety, and participating in basic professional social interactions. Gage and Prince (1982) also emphasize the importance of assessing students’ specific needs, as VESL curricula are meant to equip adult ESL learners with language that they urgently need in their work, so that they can further improve their skills and pursue better professional opportunities.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that adult ESL students have unique needs and diverse social and cultural backgrounds. All these differences directly influence the classes they take part in and can affect their progress positively or negatively. Teachers should use their awareness of students’ diverse backgrounds to develop teaching materials that correspond with students’ needs, helping them to integrate into their new societies and succeed on the professional and personal levels. As the adult ESL population includes refugees and other vulnerable groups, teachers should understand how the difficult circumstances these students have faced can interfere with their classroom participation. Adult ESL instructors should go beyond merely teaching English skills to becoming advocates for the students and a voice for their problems and concerns. These students need more than just grammar and vocabulary; they need a support system, and adult ESL teachers should play an important part in it.


Gage, J., & Prince, D. (1982). Vocational English: Preparing for a first job. TESOL Quarterly, 16(3), 349–58. Retrieved from

Manton, J. (1998). The relationship between knowing out students' real needs and effective teaching. In T. Smoke (Ed), Adult ESL: Politics, pedagogy, and participation in classroom and community programs. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

National Center for Family Literacy and Center for Applied Linguistics. (2008). Practitioner toolkit: Working with adult English language learners. Louisville, KY, and Washington, DC: Authors.

Bashar Al Hariri is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Toledo, where he teaches ESL composition and linguistics classes. He also coordinates the ESL program at US Together Refugee Resettlement Agency.

Fatmeh Alalawneh is a third-year doctoral student in the Curriculum and Instruction Program at the University of Toledo. Her research interests include adult ESL education, issues of access, diversity, and equity in higher education.



Dr. Brenda Custodio is the Assistant Newsletter Editor for RCIS and is retired from Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio. She worked as an ESL classroom teacher at the middle and high school level for 15 years. She then became a district-level resource teacher for the ESL department and later a building administrator for the Columbus Global Academy, an all-ESL middle and high school for new arrivals. The population of ESL students in Columbus City Schools has always been predominantly refugee-background students, initially from Southeast Asia, then Ethiopia and Somalia, and now from Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Columbus has the second-largest population of Somali students in the US and the largest Bhutanese/Nepali population. Brenda helped to create the newcomer program and the sheltered content courses for secondary level English learners for the district.

Brenda is a frequent presenter at both the state and national level on topics of literacy development, refugee resettlement, newcomer programs, trauma-informed teaching for immigrants, and SIFE. She has written three professional books:

  • How to Design and Implement a Newcomer Program by Allyn and Bacon (2010)
  • Students with Interrupted Formal Education: Bridging Where They Are and What They Need by Corwin Publishing in 2017 (Co-authored with Judith O’Loughlin)
  • Supporting the Journey of English Learners with Trauma (co-authored with Judith O’Loughlin) by the University of Michigan Press

Dr. Custodio received her master’s and doctorate degrees from The Ohio State University and currently serves as an adjunct professor for both Ohio State and Ohio Dominican Universities in their TESOL endorsement programs. She is past president of Ohio TESOL and has served as chair for both the Refugee Concerns Interest Section and the Secondary Schools Interest Section of TESOL, International. She received a travel grant in 1998 to visit Australia and study their ESL programs, has worked with teachers in Mexico and Japan, and worked one summer in China preparing undergraduate students to attend graduate school in the United States. In 2019 and 2020, she visited Rwanda with the refugee resettlement organization USTogether, where she worked with various non-profit groups and also conducted workshops with public school teachers.


Dr. Ilene Winokur AlZaid recently joined the Refugee Concerns Interest Section (RCIS) as a member-at-large.

In 2019, Ilene retired as Director of the Foundation Program Unit (Math and English) at Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) and was the Managing Director of Specialized Solutions, an educational consulting firm offering professional development to private school teachers in Kuwait. She was a teacher and administrator at the early childhood and elementary levels, in addition to teaching intensive English and administration at the pre-college level in private institutions in Kuwait for over 20 years. Her academic interests are leadership in practice, mentoring and coaching teachers, blended learning, and refugee education.

Ilene has lived in Kuwait since 1984 after meeting her husband while he was studying in her hometown Buffalo, New York. She is fluent in Arabic and also learned about the culture and history of her adopted home.

Ilene’s first teaching position was in a private American curriculum school in Kuwait. Since all students were English language learners, she began reading articles and books about the best practices. She learned about differentiating instruction and focusing on student outcomes when planning and teaching. She earned her certification in teaching ESL in 1999 from the College of New Jersey and continued her graduate studies with an EdD in Educational Leadership from Lehigh University in 2013. Her dissertation studied transformational leaders and their perceived influence on teachers’ transfer of training to their daily instructional practice.

Since retiring, Ilene has supported teacher leaders in Kakuma, a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya. They manage a variety of vocational and educational programs for youth in the camp to improve their chances of finding employment. She also volunteers with Jesuit Worldwide Learning (JWL) to mentor English teachers in Afghanistan and English learners in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Based on her life experiences, including being a refugee during the Gulf War in 1990, Ilene is writing a book about belonging in two different cultures on opposite sides of the world. She writes a weekly blog and hosts a podcast, Journeys to Belonging, where she interviews educators and leaders.



The Refugee Concerns Interest Section (RCIS) is an international association of educators working to promote high-quality teaching of English as an Additional Language to people with experiences of displacement or forced migration. It defines “refugee” broadly to include refugees, asylum seekers, displaced people, and others who have been forced from their homes and communities. While each individual’s situation is unique, the RCIS engages with the commonalities in how these experiences tend to affect learners in order to advance knowledge, policy, and practice.

The RCIS works with its worldwide partners in schools, community-based programs, resettlement agencies, refugee camps, and governing bodies to address the linguistic, social, political, and cultural needs of people who have experienced displacement or forced migration. These partners include teachers, teacher educators, language program administrators, refugee service providers, and policy-makers.