Some of the English language learners at Blue Ridge Literacy with their instructor and the group's director. From left: Anita Yang, China; Mireidis Marcano,; Venezuela; Susana Obregon, Mexico; Sara Geres, Instructor; Marie Elizabeth Mesadieu, Haiti; Martina Retter, Austria; Donna Line, Costa Rica; Jean Michel Saint Fixe, Haiti; director Ahoo Salem. Photo by Michael Hemphill

Eight months pregnant with a 1-year-old in tow, Safeya Ahmadi fled Afghanistan in 2020 after the Taliban took over her town. 

Years ago, Martina Retter married an American and left her Austrian home to live in his native country. 

Mireidas Marcano ran a human rights organization in Venezuela and is now trying to reorganize in the United States. 

Together with immigrants from Haiti, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Liberia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Jordan, China and around the globe, these individuals and hundreds like them have been gathering each week in the basement of the Roanoke Public Library to learn English thanks to Blue Ridge Literacy, a nonprofit originally founded in 1985 by two librarians who wanted to help American-born citizens improve their literacy skills. 

“We saw the need for an adult literacy effort,” writes Sheila Umberger, Director of Libraries for Roanoke City. “This has grown over the years into the important work of BRL [Blue Ridge Literacy]. It has always seemed like a powerful and natural collaboration. The success of someone learning to read, pass the citizenship test or to become successful in a job or school is something that is core to the mission of both BRL and to the Library.” 

Overseeing BRL is Ahoo Salem, who immigrated to the U.S. in 2016. Born in Iran, she was studying international migration and ethnic studies in Sweden in 2007 when she fell in love with a Roanoke native. After marrying they spent several years studying in Italy. “It was a wonderful life but at some point it was tiring living outside of both of our countries,” she says. 

The couple first lived in Northern Virginia, which was “a good experience but didn’t meet our initial reasons for moving here, to be close to family,” she says. In 2018 they moved to Roanoke where Salem, already fluent in Farsi, German and English, started volunteering at BRL as an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) instructor. 

In June 2019 she was tapped BRL executive director, and more recently was named to the Office of New Americans Advisory Board, which advises “the Governor, cabinet members, and the General Assembly on strategies to improve state policies and programs to support the economic, linguistic, and civic integration of new Americans throughout the Commonwealth.” 

Operating on a $200,000 annual budget funded equally by donations, contract services and grants, BRL in 2021 served 303 learners from 47 countries. 

Only about 10 percent of clients these days are American born. Rather than seeking to improve their speaking skills, Salem says they want to be better readers and writers.

“They want to be able to get a better job, or to read their Bible and participate more in church, or read to grandchildren,” Salem says. “There’s the person who wanted to write a love letter to his wife. Pay bills. Write texts. All in all they want to empower themselves and improve the living conditions for themselves and others around them. There is little we can do without the ability to read and write. And for the immigrant population, add to that the ability to communicate.” 

Salem knows that more American-born adults are in need of literacy education, “but it’s difficult to reach the larger need because of the stigma attached to lacking the ability to read and write.” 

Salem has been working to better connect with other community organizations who can refer Americans to BRL, such as the United Way of the Roanoke Valley, Freedom First Credit Union and Total Action for Progress. She invites other organizations to contact her as well. 

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Blue Ridge Literacy executive director Ahoo Salem. Like many of her students, she’s also an immigrant — from Iran. Photo by Michael Hemphill.

These days, BRL mostly attracts immigrants to its network of meeting rooms in the Roanoke Public Library and branches throughout the city. Assisting in the work are some 100 volunteers, 60 or so who are active at one time and help teach classes and provide one-on-one tutoring. 

“Our volunteers want to make a difference in the life of the community,” says Salem. “Or they have a personal tie like they’ve lived in another country and know how difficult it is. Or they remember when Roanoke was not as welcoming or diverse, and are excited by the new attitude and atmosphere of the city and want to contribute to it.” 

Immigrating from Afghanistan to Roanoke in July 2020, Ahmadi waited a year after her daughter was born – her “American daughter” she proudly states – before enrolling in BRL’s Beginning English class about four months ago. It meets Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

“Roanoke is beautiful,” she says. “Weather is the same as Kabul. I like the big star, Mill Mountain park. Every class is very very good because me coming here knowing no English and can’t talk. I start little. Now bigger and bigger. Next, me teacher! When my English is good and perfect I go to university.” 

Fifty feet away, BRL program director Sara Geres leads the Advanced English class. A New Hampshire native and graduate of Hollins University, Geres has worked at BRL for seven years after stints in the Peace Corps and teaching English in Beijing. 

In her classroom are eight adults whose immigration stories vary as widely as their countries of origin: Haiti, Costa Rica, Austria, Mexico, China and Venezuela. 

In general, Salem says, “Everybody who moves is moving for a better future and better opportunities … a better life for themselves and their families.”

Donna Line, who immigrated from Costa Rica, travels nearly an hour twice a week from her Huddleston home to the Roanoke Public Library for the Advanced class: “I want to improve my English to speak in a professional environment because I have many dreams. I really appreciate Roanoke having this program.” 

Anita Yang married an American working in China. She recently immigrated to Roanoke with her college-age daughter and is currently living alone while her husband finishes the last year of his employment contract. “To find a job is difficult because when you interview and talk to a company you have to describe your past experiences to explain your work,” Yang says. “That English is more difficult than going shopping and buying food.” 

Yang sits next to Marcano, who founded the Center for Demographics and Human Rights in Venezuela (https://www.cenadedh.com). “Right now it’s in Spanish but I want to move to English,” she says. 

Indeed, the community formed by BRL transcends the basement of the Roanoke Public Library. At Christmas, Marcano invited Yang and her daughter, who was home from Ohio State, to her house for dinner. Retter, who left her Austrian home years ago with her American husband, had planned on retiring back to her country, but her husband died a year ago. 

“Sometimes coming here from another country can be very lonely,” Retter says, “but here [at BRL] we’re learning from each other and it’s a huge support that we’re here for each other and all in this together.” 

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Some of the citizenship materials at Blue Ridge Literacy. Courtesy of Blue Ridge Literacy

Of course, one of the primary motivations for BRL’s clients is earning U.S. citizenship, a years-long process that requires command of English to pass the government interviews and civics knowledge tests. 

Citizenship classes have been part of BRL’s mission for years. In 2021, in response to pandemic-induced delays in the citizenship process, BRL added to its offerings “citizenship study groups” to keep its students’ skills sharp. 

But at its core, BRL strives to help immigrants navigate not only a foreign language but the foreign contexts in which they find themselves on a daily basis: Schools. Financial institutions. Healthcare forms and visits. Public transportation signs. Grocery stores. The DMV. 

For instance, Salem says, “It took me the longest time to understand the importance of building a credit score. I was very hesitant to using credit when I had the money. By providing these literacy services, in the long term community based organizations increase the chance of social and economic inclusion of all members of society, including immigrants.”

BRL recently began a partnership program with Carilion Clinic, which includes opportunities to connect BRL’s learners with medical students enrolled at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. These interactions help immigrants practice being in a medical environment, and help future doctors understand the language barriers that could impact a patient’s care. 

Then there’s this unexpected outcome, says Salem: 

Many of the medical students are second- or third-generation immigrants. In these young, smart, confident aspiring physicians, BRL’s students, who have overcome innumerable challenges to find a better life in these United States, see first-hand an American dream … if not for themselves, then for their children. 

Which, in the end, is one and the same.

Michael Hemphill

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who has spent the last 20 years becoming an entrepreneurial nonprofit leader in Southwest Virginia. He is...