The Alphabets of Assimilation

The Salt

Teela Magar and Cing Neam prepare roti dough as part of Edible Alphabet, a program in Philadelphia that folds English lessons for immigrants to the U.S into a cooking class. PHOTO: Bastiaan Slabbers, The Salt

Roti is a staple in Indian homes. This unleavened flat bread made of stoneground wholemeal flour links tables in Asia and Africa. With its humble origins, simple spirit, and its versatility in being an economical yet nutritious accompaniment, the roti is a mainstay of an English-as-a-Second-Language class in Philapdelphia. So, how does breaking bread help immigrants pick up basics of English – a skill vital to their rehabilitation, assimilation, and survival in a foreign land? The Salt tells us:

“Food is warmth, it’s comfort, it breaks down those barriers.” Galeb Salman left his native Iraq 25 years ago and most recently lived in Thailand. He says he savors the choices and freedom he feels since arriving here in September with his wife and five kids. “When I think I want to learn, I want to study, I can. When I want to work, I can,” he says. “I feel we have good life now. …This is my new life.”

For many immigrants, coming to America is full of the unfamiliar — from the language to the food. In Philadelphia, a program aims to help these arrivals settle into their new country by folding English lessons into a cooking class.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 20 recent immigrants and refugees to the United States streamed into a shiny commercial-size kitchen on the fourth floor of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch. They were here to partake in the library’s take on teaching English as a second language.

The program, dubbed Edible Alphabet, is run through the library and Nationalities Service Center, an organization that helps settle refugees when they arrive in Philadelphia. By offering English instruction in the form of a cooking lesson, organizers hope to provide a familiar setting for the students — who hail from over 10 different countries — to connect to each other.

“It’s been great for us to sort of connect over, ‘Here’s a can of chickpeas. What do you use chickpeas for in your meals? How would you do this differently at home?’ ” says the library’s program administrator, Liz Fitzgerald.

Each class is helmed by both a chef and an English-as-a-second-language instructor. The class starts off with an English lesson focusing on the day’s ingredients. Today, the students are spelling and sounding out words like onion, garlic, tomato and jalapeno. After the language lesson is over, they’ll set out to make chana masala and roti together.

ESL instructor Jillian Gierke says the class is about much more than just learning English.

“This is about welcoming new Philadelphians to the city,” she says. “There is no better way to do that than to share a meal together.”

Read more of this story here.

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