Literacy Pittsburgh

Literacy Pittsburgh English tutor Richard Dufner speaks with student Waleed Danyan in one of the Mt. Lebanon Library study rooms recently. Danyan, who is from Iraq, was a translator who worked with the U.S. Army, before moving to the states with his wife. He continues to learn English from Dufner and has taken his oath of U.S. citizenship.

In a quiet room at Mt. Lebanon Library, Richard Dufner and Waleed Danyan work together, reviewing the many facts, dates and figures contained in a study guide for the United States citizenship exam.

“They [will] ask about the first president, I’m sure,” says Danyan, 32, who emigrated with his family from Iraq in 2012.

“When I had my first student, I was amazed at how many questions I didn’t know the answers to,” says Dufner.

Danyan’s path to citizenship has been rocky. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, his family businesses, fuel supply and construction, began working with the Americans. After eight years, Danyan says his family ended up on an ISIS “kill list,” which resulted in the death of his sister in a car explosion and also the loss of his house in a bombing.

His work with the U.S. Army earned Danyan a U.S. visa in 2012, and he left Iraq with his wife, Athar, who was pregnant with their first child, a daughter they would name Bisan. Their first stop in the United States was Philadelphia, which Danyan immediately disliked. They were welcomed to town with a holdup attempt on a pregnant Athar. Danyan has a cousin who lives in Pittsburgh, and he made the city sound more welcoming.

“Everything is happier here,” he says. “I live in a nice neighborhood (Bethel Park), everyone is nice, nice place for a family.”

Danyan’s family now also includes two sons, Ayham and Ahmed. Both he and Athar passed their citizenship exams last November.

Dufner is a volunteer tutor with Literacy Pittsburgh, formerly known as the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. Over his 18 years of teaching English as a second language, he has worked with students from around the globe, who have found their way to the South Hills, including Danyan. “People have always come to our country. It’s how we’ve gotten to be who we are,” Dufner says.

“I get the satisfaction of helping other people, (and) it’s payback for the opportunities I’ve been given,” Dufner, a former corporate chief financial officer, says of his work. “I’ve done well.”

Waleed Danyan and his wife, Athar, received their citizenship at a naturalization hearing in November. Their children, from left, Ahmed, Ayham and Bisan, with U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Taddonio.

Literacy Pittsburgh has a long history in Mt. Lebanon. The South Hills location was headquartered at the library from 2000 until earlier this year, when they moved to Mt. Lebanon Christian Church on Cedar Boulevard. But the community roots go deeper: Mary Yardumian, a Texas native who moved to Mt. Lebanon with her husband in 1971, was passionate about literacy education, and discovered that Pittsburgh had little to offer. She founded the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council in 1976, and, with the help of volunteers, ran it from her Mt. Lebanon home until 1982, when it was established as a nonprofit corporation.

Yardumian died in 2005, but the organization she started is thriving. In addition to ESL instruction offered throughout the Pittsburgh area, “We work with a lot of American folks. ESL is just one part,” says Lee Ann Bryan, Literacy Pittsburgh’s South Hills coordinator. The organization offers adult education classes, preparing students for high school equivalency tests. If they do well on the practice GED and Hi-SET tests, Literacy Pittsburgh will award scholarships to cover the cost of the tests “so then they can go to college and take the next step.” Most students are in their late teens and early 20s, Bryan notes, but once she visited a study group whose members were celebrating a classmate’s 80th birthday.

Literacy Pittsburgh also offers career transition assistance, helping clients to obtain postsecondary education and financial aid, sharpen their job search skills, and consider career paths. All services are free to clients. Funding comes from corporations, individual and foundation support, and government assistance, although state funding has dropped by over 50 percent since 2008.

Pittsburgh Literacy South Hills coordinator Lee Ann Bryan visited tutor Keerstan McGinley’s class at Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church on Washington Road. All tutors are trained volunteers.

Bryan says Literacy Pittsburgh and the South Hills, especially Mt. Lebanon, are a good match. Of the approximately 90 tutors in the South Hills, more than half are from Mt. Lebanon. Together, they taught 170 students in 2017-18.

Literacy Pittsburgh is always looking for tutors who have a four-year degree and can commit to a minimum of six months of volunteering. In addition, they need public spaces for tutors and students to meet. “Mt. Lebanon Library has been fantastic,” Bryan notes, but the bustling library doesn’t always have available study rooms. Local coffee houses are often too busy, and students can’t always afford to buy a drink or snack. Bryan hopes to find local churches with space to offer.

“It’s so satisfying, having a direct impact on the community,” Bryan says of her work with Literacy Pittsburgh. “The work we do will not only impact the students, but their children and grandchildren as well.”

Waleed Danyan understands that, and says he looks forward to “a good future.” In addition to working as an Uber driver six days a week, Danyan owns a rental property in West Mifflin. He is working on a plan to export American cars to Iraq.  “I like (having) a business, no employer,” he says.

“I want to do something. I have many things on my mind.”

Photography by: John Schisler, Judy Macoskey