Technology helps Chattanooga clients connect to their new world

Refugees received tools they need to connect with information about their new communities, learn English, find jobs and start successful lives in Chattanooga.

One year ago, six Chattanooga refugees who had little to no experience with technology now join Zoom meetings and send emails with ease on devices they proudly own.

That’s thanks to private donations and a digital literacy course made possible through a partnership between Bridge and Tech Goes Home Chattanooga.

“We started partnering with them directly last year at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Hannah Mask, Bridge’s volunteer and community outreach manager in Chattanooga.

“The digital divide in refugee and immigrant communities was something that really came to light last year.”

Since 2015, Tech Goes Home, a digital inclusion program of the Enterprise Center, has provided nonprofits like Bridge with free digital literacy programming aimed at helping underserved populations gain the skills they need to thrive in today’s technology-driven online world.

The program tailors 15 hours of classroom instruction to the needs of the hosting group and provides new Chromebooks or tablets for participants to use during the course.

“We have what we call a curriculum buffet,” said Sammy Lowdermilk, Tech Goes Home’s program director. “It’s always changing because technology is always changing and we try to adapt to the different needs of the groups we work with.”

When the pandemic first shut down schools and businesses in spring 2020, Tech Goes Home loaned Chromebooks, tablets and mobile hotspots to eligible nonprofits, including several Bridge clients.

“The pandemic has opened people’s eyes to the scope of what is digital inequality and, if folks aren’t connected, how that can impact their lives,” Lowdermilk said.

“As a refugee, there are so many roadblocks that you encounter just by being a refugee, but having to also encounter those technology roadblocks can be challenging.

“Any time we can help our immigrant and refugee community adapt to their new surroundings, we’re happy to do so.”
He worked with Mask to design an eight-week course for six refugee clients, teaching them how to use their new laptops. The course covered skills such as how to operate a computer, how to send and receive emails, how to join a Zoom meeting and basic internet safety. They also learned how to use Google maps, a skill particularly helpful for those who do not own a vehicle and rely on public transportation to move about the city.

“We tried to pick the topics that were most relevant to the daily needs of our clients,” Mask said. “We framed each lesson as, ‘How this will be useful in your life – how you can use it to communicate with your children’s teachers in school or apply for a job.’”

Four refugees from Sudan and two from the Congo participated with the help of interpreters who spoke Arabic and Swahili. Mask supplemented the curriculum with translated resources available online and hosted the course at an outdoor pavilion at the apartment complex where the refugees live to allow for safe learning. She projected her computer screen onto a large screen under the pavilion so students could see their progress in real-time.

Thanks to your generosity, participants got to keep their computers free of charge after the program concluded.
“It was really fun and I’ve already seen a lot of clients use the skills for virtual ESL tutoring,” Mask said. “We’ve also had clients use their computers to apply for a library card online.”