Skip to content
The Upside
Link copied to clipboard

For this group, ‘welcoming the stranger’ means teaching English and citizenship — for free

Welcoming the Stranger teaches students from 104 different countries, people as young as 18 and as old as 92.

Teacher Sherry Eichert (left) and students Tulany Chinar (middle) and Nina Schelchkova play a card-matching game during a class sponsored by Welcoming the Stranger.
Teacher Sherry Eichert (left) and students Tulany Chinar (middle) and Nina Schelchkova play a card-matching game during a class sponsored by Welcoming the Stranger.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

The lesson this morning, for a dozen adults gathered in a meeting room at a Hatboro church, centers on words to know when visiting the doctor — important for immigrants still learning to speak English.

What does it mean, teacher Sherry Eichert asks, to be “a patient"? How about the word “surgery”? Has anyone ever broken a bone?

Igor Lebedyev nods.

Now 80, originally from Ukraine, he broke his leg five years ago.

“Doctor says, ‘You are old man, and the bone grows.' A metal screw,” he explains.

“Ella,” teacher Eichert addresses Lebedyev’s wife, “did you take care of him?”

“Yes,” answers Ella, 81. “He talk talk talk talk.”

The diction and vocabulary may not be perfect, but everyone understands the gist. And by the end of the class, everyone’s English has moved a step forward.

On this frozen winter day, there’s warmth around the table inside the Church of the Advent, where students engage with volunteer teachers from Welcoming the Stranger, a Bucks County nonprofit that offers free classes in English, computer skills, and citizenship to adult migrants and refugees.

“I want to learn English because I want to help with homework, and I want to work,” said Tulay Chinar, who came from Turkey in 2017 and now lives in Hatboro. “I want to talk to other people, be able to converse.”

Welcoming the Stranger takes its name from a Bible verse, one that in the last couple years has surged in usage and familiarity as the nation has convulsed in debate over immigration — Matthew 25:35, where Jesus tells his disciples to treat strangers the same way they would treat Him.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” the verse states, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Welcoming the Stranger does helpful work locally. Now, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s getting national recognition for it.

The little nonprofit has just been named one of five winners in the National Renewal Awards, a celebration of social innovation organized by The Atlantic magazine and Allstate insurance. The recipients were chosen from a gargantuan 9,300 entries, based on their success, creativity in solving problems, and potential future impact.

Welcoming The Stranger received a $20,000 prize on April 3 - which was unexpectedly sweetened with a surprise, additional $20,000 award.

“We know good ideas start at the local level,” said Stacy Sharpe, Allstate senior vice president for corporate relations. “We also know from the vast number of applicants that the need is great — but so too is the creativity and diversity among change-makers across the country.”

For Welcoming the Stranger, which relies on donations and grants, $40,000 is big money, about 30 percent of its annual budget. It would allow a growing agency to do even more.

Welcoming the Stranger teaches students from 104 different countries, people as young as 18 and as old as 92. Some have been in the United States a short while, others for decades. The largest home languages are Russian and Spanish, but it’s not unusual to have a class where 15 people are speaking 15 different tongues.

Using a few paid staffers and about 100 volunteers, the organization offers 15 to 20 classes each trimester. The classes run 12 weeks, held in churches and community centers around the region, including Bensalem, Northeast Philadelphia, Newtown, Lambertville, Doylestown, and Warminster.

English classes cover all skill levels and include instruction on reading and writing, as well as on American cultural traditions and etiquette.

The citizenship classes help students study for the naturalization test to become U.S. citizens. More than 90 percent of students pass the test on their first attempt. The computer classes serve mostly older people who are learning basic skills, such as how to access the internet and manage email. Eventually, students move on to programs like Word and Excel.

Workshops held during class help people who are new to the United States learn about nutrition, finance, voter registration, and the law. Partner organizations try to provide connections to jobs, child care, health-care, and housing.

On their own, students have formed mother’s groups and book clubs.

Welcoming the Stranger depends on more than a hundred volunteers and a few paid teachers. Some, like Eichert, 69, are experts — she previously ran the English as a Second Language program at Bucks County Community College. Others are native English speakers who simply want to help.

All see the importance of knowing the language in a largely English-speaking country.

“That’s the key to navigating the rest of society,” said Meg Eubank, Welcoming the Stranger’s executive director.

Teachers help students outside the classroom, too, serving as advocates and supporters at meetings as routine as parent-teacher conferences and as serious as Immigration Court.

Welcoming the Stranger does not ask students about their immigration status. It’s open to anyone who wants to learn. But the agency does feel the weight of the moment, when immigrants can be viewed with suspicion and “welcoming the stranger” is hardly everyone’s credo.

Why do the students undertake the struggle of learning?

“I want to know English, understand, and speak English,” said Lebedyev.

Some students want to be better able to help their children with school assignments. Others have finished raising their children, often having spoken two languages at home — but now their grandchildren speak only English, and the grandparents want to communicate.

Others simply want to become more integrated into mainstream society, to be able to casually converse with others, to chat about the weather or the news of the day.

“We are all,” said teacher Nancy Miller, 65, a retired optometrist who lives in Huntingdon Valley, “just wanting to get along and be understood.”