Language class helps refugees span cultural gaps in Costa Rica

News Stories, 26 July 2012

© UNHCR/E.Kastelz
African students in Spanish language classes for refugees and asylum-seekers from outside the region.

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica, July 26 (UNHCR) Bangalay came to Costa Rica by accident. He arrived while travelling from his native Côte d'Ivoire, heading towards what he believed was the United States. However, the ship he boarded left him in Panama and after being detained for some time, he managed to take a bus to Costa Rica, where he sought asylum.

This explains how the 17-year-old came to be seated in a Spanish class created exclusively for asylum-seekers and refugees from outside the Americas living in San José, the capital of Costa Rica.

The Association of International Consultants and Advisors (ACAI), a non-governmental organization that has been implementing UNHCR programmes since the 1990s, developed a programme in May last year that offers Spanish classes twice per week.

"The classes are a great support system for them," said Gloria Maklouf, director of ACAI. "All of the students fled their home countries to save their lives. Now, during the classes, they are able to talk with each other and share their experiences. Language is an indispensable tool for their integration process and for finding work."

Instructor Carmen Wirdyan, who holds a Master's degree in Psychology, is herself a refugee who had worked as a professor in her native Colombia. She receives a token payment for her classes, but feels very much in her element when teaching the 12 refugees and asylum-seekers.

"I love my students," she said. "Even though I am unable to solve all of their problems, I want to help improve their situation in the country as best as I can."

Kristin Halvorsen of the UNHCR office in San José acknowledged that refugees must overcome many obstacles in order to integrate themselves into Costa Rican society. It is even more difficult when their customs and backgrounds are so dissimilar to the local reality, as is the case with these students from Africa and Asia.

"When the arrival of these extra-continentals began in 2009, it signified a major challenge for UNHCR and its partners," said Halvorsen. "Their needs are different from the majority of refugees received in the country, namely Colombians who already know how to speak the local language."

The students all agree that the Spanish classes are, in some way, a symbol of a new life, free from the armed conflict that they have been victims of for so long.

"I want to forget all of the horrible things that happened in Nigeria and start from scratch," said 31-year-old Grace, who arrived in April last year. "I hope to have the life that I always wanted but could never have. These classes are the first step towards that goal."

By Erin Kastelz, in San José, Costa Rica




UNHCR country pages

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

Running for shelter in Côte d'Ivoire

UNHCR has expressed its mounting concern about civilians trapped in the Abobo district of Cote d'Ivoire's commercial centre, Abidjan, following days of fierce fighting between forces loyal to rival presidential candidates. The situation there remains grim. Many of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Abobo have fled, but armed groups are reportedly preventing others from leaving. UNHCR is particularly concerned about vulnerable people, such as the sick and the elderly, who may not be able to leave.

Running for shelter in Côte d'Ivoire

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

UNHCR has begun transferring refugees from Côte d'Ivoire to a new refugee camp in the north-eastern Liberian town of Bahn. Over the coming weeks UNHCR hopes to move up to 15,000 refugees into the facility, which has been carved out of the jungle. They are among almost 40,000 civilians from Côte d'Ivoire who have fled to escape mounting political tension in their country since the presidential election in late November.

The final number of people to move to Bahn will depend on how many wish to be relocated.from villages near the Liberia-Côte d'Ivoire border. Initially most of the refugees were taken in by host communities, living side-by-side with locals. Poor road conditions made it difficult for humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance. Supplies of food, medicine and water have been running low, making conditions difficult for both locals and refugees.

At the camp in Bahn, refugees will have easy access to basic services such as health care, clean water and primary school education.

Refugees move to new camp in Liberia

Liberia: A Neighbour's HelpPlay video

Liberia: A Neighbour's Help

Alphonse Gonglegbe fled to Liberia with his family a few months ago. He appreciates the help he's been receiving in this land neighbouring his native Côte d'Ivoire.
Liberia: Hurried FlightPlay video

Liberia: Hurried Flight

Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled their villages and sought shelter in Liberia. Francis says he ran for his life and now he wants safety and food.
Liberia: Arrival at Bahn CampPlay video

Liberia: Arrival at Bahn Camp

UNHCR has opened a new camp for up to 15,000 Ivorian refugees at Bahn in eastern Liberia. Follow the arrival of the first group.