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English major, former refugee, helps New Americans learn the language

Published February 19, 2013

Fawzia Riji will never forget the day in gym class when she was 8. The children were assigned playgroups and a classmate didn’t want Riji in her group. She said Riji couldn’t speak English like everyone else.

Earlier that year, Riji’s family had moved to Fargo from Khartoum, Sudan. The second youngest of 12 children, she traveled to America with her mother and siblings to escape war.

Adjusting to a new culture was tough. Learning a new language was just one of the many challenges. But demonstrating maturity far beyond her age, Riji was able to channel each hurtful encounter into motivation. She began to view English as an adventure, each new word a delightful discovery.

In December, Riji will graduate from NDSU with an English degree. One day she hopes to help children who face similar struggles. But in the meantime, amid school and work, she is helping adults learn the language she has grown to love.

Riji is one of nearly 20 NDSU students who regularly volunteer with Project English, a community program that makes English language learning resources accessible to New Americans.

“I can relate to them. I know learning English can sometimes be a struggle,” Riji said. “I had a similar struggle, but I know practice makes it better.”

Today, she feels blessed to be able to help others.

Riji and the other students volunteer each week at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, one of eight Project English locations in Fargo-Moorhead. Using language-learning software, the volunteers facilitate, encourage, support and troubleshoot technical glitches. Most participants are adults from countries such as Bhutan, Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Nepal and Iraq.

Many of the faces, both of the New Americans and volunteers, become familiar week after week. Riji has volunteered almost every Monday since August. She says it is important to help others.

“It makes you feel good and at the same time you learn so much. When I volunteer for Project English, I learn a few words in their language, their name, what they like, what they don’t like. That helps you to respect and have insights into different cultures.”

Project English was started by Fargo-Moorhead’s five Rotary Clubs. Local Rotarian and Project English director, Heather Ranck, contacted Kevin Brooks, NDSU English department chair and professor, to see if his students would be interested in helping. The response amazed her.

“I am speechless at the tremendous outpouring of volunteerism coming from NDSU students for our Project English program to help refugees learn English,” Ranck said. “The amount of enthusiasm and genuine interest from students has been so heartening and has really blown me away.”

For Riji, seeing individuals work hard to overcome their language obstacles takes her back to elementary school. “I reflect back to where I come from and from my experience of how people used to treat me, because I didn’t know the same language as them.”

Now Riji is a model of perseverance to her newfound friends on Monday nights.

She hopes to attend graduate school next spring.


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North Dakota State University
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Last Updated: Tuesday, May 19, 2015 11:32:34 AM