Finding Hope Amid Adversity

Posted on May 17, 2017

When Mohamad Nadaf, his wife Abir Alken, and their daughter Sundus arrived in Rockford eight months ago as refugees from war-torn Syria in search of a safer and better life, none of them spoke a word of English.

Thanks to help from Rock Valley College’s Refugee & Immigrant Services, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, they are making great progress as they strive to gain English literacy skills. That progress has come due to tremendous dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance. Because they had no car, Mohamad and Abir took the bus every day to get to the ESL classes at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church on Rural Street in Rockford. Complicating matters further, Mohamad is physically disabled and confined to a wheelchair, and the bus would drop them off on East State Street, nearly two miles away from the church.

That did not stop them. To get to class, Abir would push her husband those two miles every day, even in wintry Rockford weather, arriving most days three hours before the class was scheduled to start. Despite those challenges, they have close to perfect attendance in class.

That dedication did not go unnoticed by their instructor, Ameen Abdullah.

Ameen Abdullah instructs an ESL class at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.

“This is the type of person you need to focus on,” says Abdullah. “I felt we needed to inspire other people with [Mohamad and Abir] because it’s an amazing story.”

Mr. Abdullah has been pleased with Mohamad’s development so far, noting that when he first came to class, Mohamad did not know how to write, but now he is writing some, and he is speaking better and better.

“Some students are hesitant to talk in class, but I always encourage them to keep talking and not be afraid of making mistakes because you will always learn from your mistakes,” says Abdullah.

Mohamad agrees that progress is being made. With Mr. Abdullah interpreting, Mohamad talks about how conversations in class and hearing the words is very important to his learning. He feels he is not very good at writing yet, but the repetition of words in classes is helping his overall understanding of the language.

Tricia Wagner, the Coordinator of RVC’s ESL Program, is also impressed with Mohamad’s improvement in a short time.

“Mohamad not only has nearly perfect attendance, but he achieved an educational learning gain on our performance assessment,” says Wagner. “He’s really making strides.”

Of course, by his side, providing tireless support and assistance, is Abir. Gone are the days of pushing Mohamad’s wheelchair two miles to class. That’s because she took it upon herself to learn how to drive, earned her license, and obtained a car. When asked why she would go through such efforts, she says very simply, “Because this is what I felt I should do for my family.”

Mohamad lights up and his conversational tone completely changes when asked about Abir.

“She supports me all the way in my life,” he says. “She is a very supportive woman. We went through many bad things in our life but she has stayed with me.”

Left to right: Mohamad Nadaf, Sundus, Abir Alken

Also with them is their daughter, Sundus. She sits quietly off to the side as her parents are being interviewed, taking photos on her smartphone, like any ordinary 11-year old girl might do in the same situation. But Sundus is far from ordinary. She too came to the United States just eight months ago, not knowing the language, but you would never guess it from speaking with her. Although shy, she shows a very good command of the English language. She says she is proud of what her parents are doing in order to try to provide a better life for her.


While taking the Literacy Basic ESL classes, Mohamad continues to work with RVC’s Refugee & Immigrant Services to try to find employment. Back in Syria, both Mohamad and Abir were bag makers, but so far they have not been able to find a similar job in Rockford. They hope to keep learning the language and are optimistic they can find a job they are suited for and where their skills will translate. Most students advance to different levels of ESL classes in one or two semesters. Mohamad would like to keep progressing through the various levels and even expresses interest in possibly taking college level classes at RVC someday.

That commitment to learning is something his instructor, Mr. Abdullah, certainly believes in.

“When you feed someone, he will forget that food when he becomes hungry again,” says Abdullah. “But when you feed his soul and his brain, he will never forget it.”


Fast Facts

  • This fiscal year, the RVC Adult Education program served nearly 700 ESL students.
  • Students in the FY17 ESL program represent 59 countries and speak 49 languages.
  • Many ESL students speak more than one language already – some speak as many as four other languages, with English being their fifth.
  • Students often come to the RVC ESL program with a variety of goals – many need English language development to gain employment, improve employment, and access the Illinois High School Equivalency certificate and postsecondary credentials.
  • Civic topics, workplace skills, and mathematics are included in the ESL curriculum to assist students in building the framework needed to function effectively as community members and employees, and those students who are parents are coached in how they can support their children in school.
  • Many ESL students come to the program with skills, certificates, and degrees from their native countries, and they hope to access education and training needed to establish themselves and thrive in a career in the United States.
  • Refugee service programs, such as the Rock Valley College program as well as Catholic Charities, provide referrals and support for ESL students who are refugees. The Rock Valley College Adult Education Department works closely with the local refugee services programs to ensure that their clients can connect with ESL classes.