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At Indo-American Center, 67-Year-Old Dreams In Red, White And Blue

By Vishakha Darbha | August 3, 2016 5:51am
 Zubeda Begum Yasin, 67, is from Karachi, Pakistan.
Zubeda Begum Yasin, 67, is from Karachi, Pakistan.
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Indo-American Center

WEST RIDGE — Zubeda Begum Yasin knew all the answers to the questions scribbled on the chalkboard.

In the advanced English literacy class held at the Indo-American Center, her enthusiastic responses and friendly interactions kept the rest of the class equally engaged.

For Yasin, the Indo-American Center, at 6328 N. California Ave., represents a place in Chicago she can call home.

The 67-year-old Yasin — originally from Karachi, Pakistan — isn’t just a student at the center: She also volunteers every Saturday to teach the students in the beginners’ literacy class.

“I taught for 13 years in Pakistan, and after that I taught for nine years in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I’ve always had a connection with teaching."

The IAC was founded in 1990 by a group of immigrants from India to help Chicago's growing South Asian immigrant population, assist them in integrating into the United States and foster appreciation for their heritage and culture.

The IAC says it serves over 4,500 people annually using private and corporate donations and government grants.

Students come from a wide range of countries, including Iraq, Iran and Syria. Yasin, who went from mentee to mentor in just about a year, can speak both Urdu and Arabic which helps her communicate with a wide range of other students and staff.

“I remember the first class she came to, she was so quiet,” said Nayantara Abraham, a volunteer teacher at the center. “We talked about being self-conscious, and how you just have to get over it. Now you can see the process, because of her dedication.

"At her age, to decide to learn a new language. She has a such a voracious appetite [for learning.] She never misses a class," Abraham said.

Aside from volunteering and engaging with other students, Yasin also suggested creating a budget-stretching wish list of everyday items, leading to valuable donations such as stationery and toilet paper.

The Indo-American Center has been working hard to raise civic awareness among immigrants in the West Ridge and Devon community. With the current presidential election buzz, the center has been bringing student volunteers to tour the neighborhood to spread the word about how to vote.

Renuka Sharma, the center's literacy program coordinator, said civics are part of the advanced English lessons: “We need to talk about current political events as it constitutes a part of living in this country.”

Based on 2014 census estimates, about 5 percent of the 567,000 foreign-born Chicagoans are from South Central Asia, which includes India and countries surrounding it. In West Ridge, more than 8,000 residents were born in South Central Asia, about 11 percent of the neighborhood population.

The Indo-American Center hosts a variety of offerings, including after-school youth programs, a seniors’ program and computer literacy classes.

“Most of our clients cannot speak English, and so it’s important for us to be here to help, such as learning English to get employed,” said Selma D’Souza, the executive director of the center.

For Yasin, her commitment to English education and the center could be seen in a speech she gave in Springfield in May to promote civic and community engagement among Asian Immigrants. The speech, titled “I Speak Power” was completely written by her in English, and she used a dictionary to make sure she got every word right.

“From our mothers’ wombs to the day we are lowered into our graves,” she said, “until that day we need to strive hard to acquire an education.”

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