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Sudan, Eritrea, Liberia — all these are names of countries in Africa I had heard little about until recently. Last February my husband and I were called as part-time Church-service missionaries in the Salt Lake Inner City Project and assigned to a ward in the Rose Park area. Here we found the most unusual Sunday School class we’d ever heard of. The class consists of five African refugees and one woman from Mexico. In the next paragraphs is a roster of those students — all recent converts — and a little about each remarkable person.

Some class members and missionaries

Ajok is from southern Sudan, not all that far from Dafur, a region ravaged by famine and war. Marauding Arab-Muslim militias called Janjaweed have killed hundreds of thousands of Blacks, and driven more than two million out of the country into refugee camps.

Ajok came with two of her aunts and a cousin as refugees to this country just two years ago — after spending five years in refugee camps in Egypt. After her arrival here, she worked nearly 18 months at the Church’s Deseret Industries and LDS Humanitarian Center. She now is employed full-time as a restaurant dishwasher.

This shy, slender, elegant 37-year old refugee has never had any formal education, but she speaks Dinka and Arabic. Her English is the most limited of the five students. Fearful of being out alone at night, she receives personal one-on-one English tutoring in her home twice a week by a devoted volunteer from the non-profit organization, English Skills Learning Center. Despite her meager earnings, Ajok is proud of the fact that she is self-sufficient. Her apartment is inviting and immaculately clean.

By Way of Eritrea

Abraha, age 60, is from Eritrea. He has been in the U.S. for 18 months. In 1962, Ethiopia forcefully annexed Eritrea. After 31 years of war, Eritrea won its independence, but has since been in continual armed border disputes. Abraha has only had five years of education, which was constantly interrupted by war. Nevertheless, he became very proficient in speaking, reading and writing Tigrinya and Amharic.

By trade Abraha was a subsistence farmer near a city along the Ethiopian border. His first wife, an Ethiopian, died in childbirth. The newborn child, a daughter, was placed in an orphanage for two years until Abraha remarried, this time to a native Eritrean. He reclaimed his daughter, and over time his second wife bore him two more children, a daughter and son.

When war encompassed his region in the late 1990s, the Eritrean army tried to conscript him into service. He did not want to fight! At the peril of his life, he hastily left his wife and three children to seek refuge across the border in Ethiopia. But Ethiopian authorities captured and imprisoned him, accusing him of spying for Eritrea.

Conditions in the prison camp were deplorable. Confined to a mud hut with a leaky thatched roof, Abraha slept on the raw ground, often wet and cold, with no mat, blanket, or pillow. His diet consisted primarily of a little corn meal and water. He was frequently ill and steadily became more and more frail. After four years, the Red Cross rescued him and relocated him to a refugee camp, where he remained for another year before being sent to America.

Unable to get his family out of Eritrea, Abraha hasn’t seen his wife and children for more than seven years. He recently received a photograph of his family. Their gaunt faces tell a grim story of near-starvation. Every effort is being made to reunify Abraha with his family, but the diplomatic and financial obstacles are immense.

Nevertheless, Abraha remains determined. He buys a calling card and telephones his wife, Hiwet, nearly every month. To make the call, he first telephones a relative, who in turn arranges a week in advance to bring Hiwet some 50 miles by bus to his home. On special occasions, Abraha is able to speak with his 19-year-old daughter, Azib, nine-year old daughter, Senuit, and seven-year old son, Bereke. But monthly bus trips are too expensive for all of them.

Abraha works full-time in a low-paying custodial job. His monthly rent is shared by three young Somali refugees, and in this way Abraha is able to support himself on his survival wage. He even periodically sends money home to his family. Three evenings each week, he attends 2.5 hours of ESL classes at Horizonte, a Salt Lake City alternative high school. Abraha recently received the Aaronic priesthood and has been thrilled to pass the sacrament. In July, he also began serving as a home teacher.

Ajok and Abraha with birthday cupcakes and a picture of President Hinckley

Three Liberians

Three of our Sunday School students are from Liberia: Precious, Florence and her younger half-sister, Rita. Liberia was founded in 1822 by former black slaves from the United States who sought freedom and a return to their former lifestyle in Africa. But today, fifteen thousand U.N. peace-keeping troops are trying to bring stability to a nation that has experienced 18 years of brutal civil war.

For most of their lives, these three sisters have known nothing but fear and bloodshed. They miraculously escaped to Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). Many of their relatives have been killed. Some family members are still in refugee camps.

Precious, Florence and Rita spent 14 years with 300,000 others in severely overcrowded refugee camps. But even in the camps, they lived in constant fear for their lives. During the night, soldiers would quietly invade and kidnap Liberians — often young children. The soldiers would take their victims outside the camp and kill them, leaving their mutilated bodies along the road.

Precious, Florence, and Rita all speak English and Kran. While in Côte d’Ivoire, they also learned a brand of pigeon French in order to survive. But, none of the three has ever had any formal education. So when the U.S. brought them to this country, being illiterate, they faced a mighty challenge. Adding to that challenge, each had children to care for, and no husband. All three are unwed mothers.

Ajok, Abraha, Precious, Florence, and Rita are five African refugees trying desperately to adapt to their alien lives in Salt Lake City. Their single greatest barrier to success is language. They are severely handicapped by their lack of English communication skills. Recognizing this, their ward started a special ESL Sunday School class that each week spans two of the three meeting blocks. During the Sunday School period, they are taught the rudiments of English. During the priesthood/Relief Society block, those rudiments are used to teach them gospel concepts.

The last member of the class, Rubi, mother of five, is from Mexico, speaks only Spanish, and adds a lively cultural diversity to the mix. She understands very little English, but is making progress!

The Teachers

In our assigned mission ward, we work with two other couples. One of these, Elder and Sister Hartley, has served for nearly a year. They inherited the ESL Sunday School class. Never was there more a match made in heaven.

Professionally, Elder Hartley manages international translation assignments in more than 20 languages and has supervised projects in more than 30 countries.

Sister Hartley is a professional reading tutor of children in kindergarten through 6th grade levels. She is employed part-time in the Murray School District and at the University of Utah.

In a previous 12-month Church-service mission, Sister Hartley also taught ESL at the Murray Deseret Industries, There she taught a wide variety of individuals, including Russians, Bosnians, Mexicans, and Pakistanis. Could there be any better background for what these students need?

The Class

In the first hour of our Sunday School class, Sister Hartley presents the most amazing lessons combining the teaching of basic English and math skills with gospel concepts. Our students have learned to count change, fill out tithing slips, and recognize English names of common objects, as well as the letters of the alphabet, how to phonetically sound out words, and read in first and second grade primers. Sister Hartley goes the extra mile with her lessons. One week she presented the letter “H” and tried to illustrate the sound of the letter with common American words, such as “hot dog.” A couple of the students didn’t know what a hot dog is, so Sister Rawlins and one of the other missionary sisters treated the students to delicious samples the following week. Now the students have no problem with the letter “H.”

During the second hour, Elder Hartley teaches basic gospel terminology and concepts, primarily from the Gospel Principles manual. Prior to class, he researches translations of gospel words from the languages these students speak and prepares flash cards so that he can show them the words in their own language as well as English. From time to time he uses a laptop computer to show segments from General Conference in three different languages. For each concept he teaches, Elder Hartley attempts to find object lessons, visual aids, and audiovisual segments to help the students relate the concepts to their past and present lives.

Elder Hartley and Sister Hartley depend heavily on Elder and Sister Rawlins and Elder Isackson during class. After they teach basic concepts, they enlist the other missionaries to reinforce those concepts through one-on-one tutoring that includes activities, worksheets, and oral and written exercises.

Elder Isackson tutoring Abraha

Sunday School has also become a time to teach a little American culture, particularly as it relates to common traditions and major holidays. President Hinckley’s recent 97th birthday was a great excuse to teach American birthday customs. Sister Hartley fed the students cupcakes, led them in the traditional birthday song, and then had the students prepare simple, personal, written greetings for President Hinckley.

These greetings were combined with a composite photo of the class members and all the Church-service missionaries, and then mailed the packet to the prophet. Much to their surprise and amazement President Hinckley directed his personal secretary to reply in his behalf with a special thank you and greeting to the refugees.

Here is the birthday greeting that was sent by the class to President Hinckley on his 97th birthday.

As another example, Elder and Sister Hartley wanted the students to learn about Pioneer Day in Utah. So they showed selected segments from the Church movie, Legacy. By the end of the lesson, the students understood that Latter-day Saints know what it is like to be refugees — unwanted, brutally treated and driven from their homes and families.

Problems Worthy of Our Lives

I have a friend who once told me that she prays to be “given problems worthy of her life.” She explained that she wanted to grapple with things that matter, to extend herself in service in difficult situations rather that fritter away her time worrying about petty or selfish concerns. She would make a good inner city missionary!

Working with African refugees gives a whole new perspective to the lives of the missionaries. We go home after visiting their cramped apartments feeling like we live in mansions. We leave our concerns and worries about small daily problems and help the refugees grapple with survival issues — whether they will have a roof over their heads tomorrow, making sure their children have something to eat.

They come from such a violent culture that many of them wind up in court cases for battery, child abuse, and other violent crimes. The missionaries help however they can, and try to teach a kinder, gentler approach to domestic problem-solving. We also help them wade through the complex and frustrating government red tape to receive the benefits rightly coming to them as refugees.

Inner City Sunday School Perspective

I wish each one of you could sit in on this Inner City Sunday School class. I wish you could enjoy the laughter and camaraderie of the students, their pleased smiles when they learn something new, the hope in their eyes when they recognize letters and numbers, the light in their eyes when Sister Hartley holds up President Hinckley’s picture and asks, “who is this?” and they answer, “This is President Gordon B. Hinckley, our prophet.”

We take so much for granted — our free country, our education, our homes, our conveniences, and most of all the depth of our knowledge of the gospel and the scriptures. These people take nothing for granted. They value every little blessing, and can teach us all such precious lessons of gratitude.