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Homeland Security

American Forces Press Service

Detainee Literacy Rates Improve Through Education Programs

By Spc. Shanita Simmons, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

U.S. NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Oct. 17, 2007 – Literacy programs aimed at detainees held here show signs of success, as many detainees are sharpening their academic skills.

Joint Task Force Guantanamo offers detainees courses in Arabic and Pashto, as well as basic arithmetic. Army 1st Lt. Rominita Rodriquez, the officer in charge of the literacy program, said she credits the joint task force’s leaders with developing and approving curriculum that serves two purposes.

“The commander’s intent is to provide a program aimed at improving the literacy rate of detainees with little or no writing skills, so we can aid them with reintegrating to their country,” Rodriquez said. “Secondly, we hope participants in the program will be able to read and understand the Quran for themselves. They will also be able to read and write letters to family members in their native countries.”

Detainees who participate in the literacy program attend classes for about 90 minutes three days a week and take beginning, intermediate and advanced-level courses that focus on their skill deficits. According to one instructor, Sherif, the Pashto course is popular since some of the Afghan population here is poorly educated. Official policy is not to release full names of some individuals who work with detainees in Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

“Based on my information, the majority of the Arabic-speaking detainees have high school and college degrees,” Sherif said.

However, according to Mary, another instructor in the camps, the Afghan detainee literacy rate is only about 20 percent. Pashto, the official language of Afghanistan, is spoken by about 13 million people.

Arabic is classified as a macro-language, with about 27 sub-languages spoken throughout the Arab world. Sherif said detainees from such diverse countries as Algeria, Sudan, Canada and Saudi Arabia speak Arabic. Since a majority of detainees here originated from Afghanistan and Arabic-speaking countries, the literacy program’s primary focus is on teaching the two main languages spoken there.

The Arabic course focuses on helping detainees improve grammar, structure sentences and conjugate verbs using “classic Arabic,” the language of the Quran, as the base. Detainees placed in intermediate courses are taught using high school and college-level textbooks. Advanced classes serve as refreshers that focus on clarifying and revisiting various aspects of the language. Although detainees are tested periodically, class participation and homework exercises also are used to measure their success. Many detainees also check out books from the detainee library to help reinforce their skills.

In contrast, detainees participating in the Pashto course are taught on a more basic level. These detainees are taught the basic alphabet and then move onto learning word and sentence structure. Conducting initial assessments of detainees is essential, since they help determine the right class placements for detainees.

“The assessments help us understand exactly where they are, so we can then build on their knowledge base,” Rodriquez said. “The program has been very successful. We have detainees that didn’t know how to read and write, and now they are reading like regular guys who attended college.”

Rodriquez added that instructors provide one-on-one instruction or more homework to struggling detainees until they catch up with others in their classes.

Rodriquez said she attends some of these classes herself and encourages detainees to provide feedback on how the courses can be improved. She said many detainees have shown their gratitude by asking their instructors to thank the joint task force command for helping to build and reinforce their skills.

Task force leaders consider detainee requests and have made feasible changes to the program as a result of their input. However, all changes have to account for the safety of the instructors and the guard force. Therefore, there are always a minimum of two guards in each classroom and a set of restraints bolted to the floor is located near each desk.

When detainees complain about the instructional environment, Sherif said he encourages them to look beyond their ankle restraints. “I tell them that everyone has their own cuffs or boundaries of dos and don’ts, but they are not visible to the eyes,” Sherif said. “I tell them that they must forget about those things and concentrate on what they do have. This perspective usually works.”

Despite Sherif’s Arabic descent, interacting with detainees is sometimes a challenge, since he must first establish a level of trust and respect within the classroom environment.

“Some of the detainees who attend my class would say I am an infidel because I work with the United States,” Sherif said. “I always begin my first class by saying ‘Shalam Malacum,’ which is translated to mean ‘Peace upon you.’ I will then quote verses from the Quran to remind them that it is their duty to respond to peace when it is being given to them. Then they will usually respond.”

(Army Spc. Shanita Simmons is assigned to Joint Task Force Guantanamo Public Affairs.)

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