MESA, Arizona — Ghada sat attentively next to her reading tutor, practicing blending sounds and reading words aloud.
“I want to continue with my learning,” she said. “It will help me with my business, to talk to my customers.”
Ghada, who is professionally trained to do hair, makeup and skin care, lives in Mesa with her 11-year-old son. She wants to get her GED and an Arizona license to use her skills and eventually open a salon.
A year ago she was living in Jordan, under very difficult circumstances.
“In my country, life is difficult,” she said. “Not easy.”
Ghada applied for asylum in the U.S. and settled in Arizona earlier this year. She found the Mesa Welcome Center and attends weekly tutoring sessions.
The Mesa Welcome Center for Immigrants, which opened its doors in February, is part of the Church’s Immigrant Services Initiative, which originated in Salt Lake City. It is held in the Mesa Inter-Stake Center near downtown and is currently the only one outside of Utah.
Bret Ellsworth, the Church’s Welfare Department’s manager of Immigrant Services, said the program began as an outreach to the non-member immigrant population.
“This is a very underserved population,” he said, explaining that they can come across a lot of misinformation and are vulnerable to be taken advantage of.
“We provide access to resources that these individuals might not get because of cost, distance, or trust,” he said.
He said the centers — the others are in Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah — are just one part of a three-part plan to help immigrants and refugees. The others are legal clinics and cultural adaptation classes.
In Arizona, the Mesa Welcome Center and another site at the Beus Center for Law and Society at Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus offer legal advice and counsel on issues related to immigration and family law from attorneys providing pro bono services once a month. Hundreds of people have come seeking help.
“A lot of these folks are looking for straight answers, resources and referrals,” Brother Ellsworth said.
Cultural Adaptation Classes have been offered through the Mesa Welcome Center although recently a 10-week program was held at the Somali American United Council in Phoenix. Church-service missionary, Nora Castañeda, oversees that part of the program, having experience working for a school district in Phoenix in outreach to refugees.
According to ProvidentLiving.lds.org, such services help the immigrant population more easily integrate into society and overcome barriers in becoming more self-reliant. They are offered free without regard to race, religious affiliation or nationality. The Church partners with community organizations to help provide these services.
In Mesa, Susan Whetten Udall of the Mesa Arizona Clearview Stake is one of six Church-service missionaries leading the effort.
She said when she first heard that the Church was opening legal clinics and other services in Arizona she knew she wanted to help.
“I feel that everything I’ve done up to this point has led me to be a part of this,” she said.
Sister Udall, whose father was an immigrant from Mexico, has a teaching degree and a master’s in bilingual and multicultural education. She has also been a reading tutor for 30 years.
“I’m passionate about education and how it can lift and bless lives perpetually for generations,” she said.
Sister Udall, who serves as the volunteer coordinator, saw the need for adult reading tutoring at the Mesa Welcome Center, and began offering the program with volunteers in September.
While many agencies and school districts provide assistance for children, there is very little for adults.
“Adult parents want to read,” Sister Udall said. “There was nothing out there.”
On Tuesday evenings, families show up at the center. Adults meet with their reading tutors for one hour while their children meet in an adjoining room where they learn positive habits, enjoy games and crafts, and can even learn to play the ukulele and piano.
“The children absolutely love it,” Sister Udall said. “They ask their parents all day, ‘When are we going to class?’ That makes us happy.”
There are also sports, activities and classes for older youth in other rooms and in the gym.
She said individuals and families who have received help at the center have come from various parts of the world, including Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan and China.
There are more than 50 volunteers, and they come from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities.
“We wanted our volunteers to reflect the diversity of the world,” she said.
Sister Udall said she’s done a lot of outreach in the community to spread the word of what the center offers, from attending mosques and family literacy sites to stopping people on the streets.
“Everywhere I go, I have my cards,” she said. “Our motto is to ‘empower them with hope.’ We do this by teaching them skills and connecting them with resources they need to survive and thrive.”
The program continues to grow in Arizona.
At a recent gathering, Arizona State University students representing Us United attended and planned to get more students involved.
Abdul Manfoukh, director of the student organization, said he was learning how ASU students can assist with tutoring and help refugees transition.
“The amount of opportunities that can come out of here is phenomenal,” he said.
Brother Ellsworth credits the success and enthusiasm seen at the center to the missionaries and volunteers.
“It’s a small army who are doing it for the love of their brothers and sisters,” he said. “It’s a great program — good things are happening here.”