On Tuesday morning, about 40 men and women hailing from Haiti sat in the education building of the Presbyterian Church of Charleroi, pens and notebooks on a table in front of them, donuts and bottled water on a counter nearby.
They had arrived for English as a Second Language classes offered by the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania at the church.
The church, the Literacy Council and Intermediate Unit 1 partnered to launch weekday classes to meet the language needs for the the burgeoning immigrant population in Charleroi – driven largely by Haitian refugees fleeing violence and political unrest.
Before the church opened its doors to the Literacy Council, the Haitians had to find transportation to the council’s campus in Washington.
“We’d looked for years for a place in Charleroi to hold classes, and the match with the church was a marriage made in heaven,” said Kris Drach, a tutor and former president of the literacy council board. “We knew there was a growing Haitian population there. They’d started sprinkling into our Washington classrooms, but many of them don’t have cars, and it was a bit difficult. We wanted to find a way to go to them instead of forcing them to find a way to get to Washington.”
With the help of Haitian-born Getro Bernabe, a Literacy Council tutor who serves as immigrant liaison for the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Literacy Council in 2021 began offering classes on Sundays in the back room of a Haitian grocery store in town.
The Sunday classes then moved to Fourth Street Packaging Inc., where several immigrants are employed, but the Literacy Council continued to search for a permanent home.
Enter the Rev. Sharon Woomer, pastor of the church.
Woomer, who had volunteered with Hello Neighbor in Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that supports recently resettled refugee and immigrant families, and her congregation were looking for a way to make an impact in the community.
“We saw the greatest need, in terms of migrants, was literacy. The need is tremendous, and this is the beginning of helping a lot of people,” said Woomer.
On a Sunday in April, the church – not knowing what kind of turnout to expect – opened its doors for ESL classes. To Woomer’s surprise, 120 people showed up.
“They were standing on the lawn, ready to go. That’s how excited people were for the opportunity to learn to speak English and to read,” she said. “We had to turn people away because we weren’t able to hold that many people.”
Now, the Literacy Council offers classes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at the church.
The Sunday classes average between 70 and 90 students. Drach expects participation in the new Tuesday and Thursday classes to grow to as many as 100 students, and has trained local tutors to teach them.
The Literacy Council’s enrollment has exploded in recent years, and more than 600 students from across the globe attend classes taught by the council’s 50 tutors.
Charleroi is home to about 2,000 immigrants from 44 countries, including China, Spain, Indonesia and African countries.
Bernabe, who served as an officer in the Haitian Coast Guard, said the Haitians have landed in Charleroi in search of a better life.
“Their goal is to leave the country because of fear of what is happening, the political problems, the economic problems. They don’t feel like they are safe living in Haiti. Even if they love Haiti, it is just not safe for families to live there.”
Bernabe – fluent in four languages – moved to Charleroi three years ago.
“You know how immigration works, some friends come first and they talk to their friends, they say it’s a good place in Charleroi, the housing is not very expensive, it’s cheaper than living in a big city, and that’s what draws them here,” said Bernabe. “If you like a quiet place, you might be able to love it here.”
That reputation has prompted the swell of Haitian refugees to Charleroi.
Most are here on Temporary Protective Status (TPS), a program that allows refugees whose home countries are considered unsafe the right to live and work in the United States for a temporary, but extendable, period of time.
Woomer said the community has responded to the church’s call for tutors, with 12 people completing ESL training to teach classes at the church.
Keith Bassi, a retired attorney, was among them.
More than 100 years ago, his grandmother served as a translator for Italian immigrants.
“My sister-in-law described the immense need there was for tutors, and I saw the opportunity to provide a service to people, much as my grandmother had done,” said Bassi. “I really enjoy it, it’s extremely rewarding. The response we get from the students is overwhelming, and their desire to learn is unsurpassed.”
Students said they wanted to learn English in order to become a part of the community and to attain better jobs.
“They know they need to know English. In order for them to be better in the community and to further themselves and have better opportunities, they have to have the language, they have to understand and communicate,” said Bernabe.
The Literacy Council’s adult ESL classes include people from a wide range of professions, including doctors, police officers, lawyers, business owners, and teachers who left Haiti.
“I think as a church community and a member of the Charleroi community, it’s important to appreciate what these people have sacrificed and what they’ve had to go through, to admire their resiliency,” said Woomer. “Even when you’re teaching them and working with them, you’re learning from them. You’re sitting with people who have accomplished a lot in their life. It’s a very relational experience, a very emotional experience. Literacy is life-changing. It’s really inspiring to sit and watch them learn the language and to help make a difference in their life.”