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Casa de Maryland’s ‘Winter Semester’ teaches skills to immigrants

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When Jesus Echeverria waits for employers to select him from a crowd of day laborers, they often pass him up.

The skills they are looking for are ones the Salvadoran immigrant doesn’t have, such as electrical work, drywalling or masonry.

“I want to know how to do the work,” said Echeverria, 54.

With the launching of a new program called “Winter Semester” at Casa de Maryland, he may have better luck this spring. During the cold-weather lull in outdoor work, the Latino advocacy organization is conducting a three-month program of classes in six locations to teach immigrants marketable skills such as plumbing, tailoring, child care, English and computer literacy.

The program, which has public and private funding and is free to students, has 160 immigrants currently enrolled. It supplements Casa de Maryland’s night and morning classes.

The classes take place during daytime hours, when workers might otherwise be at a job during the construction season.

“We definitely have some skills issues for the workers,” said Kim Propeack, Casa’s political director, “and we do have employers who come who are not able to hire people because we don’t have the folks who have the skills.”

English is important not only to do jobs correctly but for the workers’ safety. Immigrant and Latino workers get injured on the job more frequently than others, Propeack said.

“There are a lot of workplace accidents because of inadequate English communication,” she said.

Even experienced workers will benefit from adding skills in an economy in which there is expected to be less new construction and more opportunities in renovation and interior work, Propeack added.

On Tuesday, the power tools class in Silver Spring was packed with immigrants in paint-spattered work boots who listened to a lecture in Spanish on safety techniques for handling power saws. A translator repeated the information in French for the growing number of Francophones from Haiti and Africa.

Ahmadou Ibrahim, 33, who came to the United States six months ago and hopes to find contracting work, said the classes teach him techniques that are different from those commonly used in Cameroon, where he taught at a technical high school.

Ibrahim said he hopes what he learns about American-style construction will help him find work in the spring.

“What we are doing in Africa is quite different,” he said. “Here, the skill is more advanced. Like the drywall is a skill that we’ve never seen. And here they use screws, while in Africa we mostly use nails in construction.”

In the English class, where vocabulary lessons are often job-related, Henry Argueta helped a roomful of students figure out the difference between “leaf” and “lift.” Using their hands to make a heaving motion, the students acted out the word to each other.

“But there is also a ‘lifting machine,’ ” said one student, looking confused.

“Yes,” Argueta replied. “That’s a forklift. You know, when you have the pallets?

“You also have the scissor lift,” he added, sketching on a whiteboard a truck with an accordion-style lift on top. Students nodded in recognition.

But the class, which includes students at different levels of English, is not limited to workplace topics. When a student asked Tuesday about people he has seen who don’t drive cars, it sparked a lively discussion about the Amish. That was one of many cultural lessons that have spontaneously arisen in the class.

“They want to adapt to the culture,” Argueta said. “Sometimes they ask me about politics. When it was Thanksgiving they asked, ‘Teacher, why is it Thanksgiving? Where does it come from?’ ”

Paul Yembe, 61, a native of Cameroon, works at Target but has found it difficult to move up because of his poor English. He hopes the classes will help. “I need to get a better job,” he said.

Argueta, who has taught English to immigrants since 2002, said they often do help: “A lot of students come back and say, ‘Teacher, because of what I’ve learned, I got a job.’ ”

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