Afghan refugee, Haworth employee among honorees at Literacy Center of West Michigan's Spellebration

Reza Nematy arrived in the U.S. in 2022 as a refugee from Afghanistan along with his pregnant wife and their 2-year-old daughter. Before the collapse of the Afghan government in the wake of the Taliban’s resurgence, Nematy had been a flourishing member of his community in Kabul. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and worked as a software designer and entrepreneur, starting more than 10 businesses.  

His work with the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan qualified Nematy and his immediate family to come to the United States as refugees. They were among the last people to leave the country as the U.S. military evacuated. 


Despite his impressive background and ability to speak English, Nematy faced challenges pursuing his goals due to limited written English proficiency. 

When the family arrived in the U.S., they settled temporarily at a military base in New Jersey. Asked by his support team to list his needs, Nematy had one answer: A job.

“We left Afghanistan with nothing,” he says. “Everything in our house, we left.”

The government helped him settle in Holland near other family members who had already relocated to the U.S.

Reza Nematy was not confident in his English skills until the Literacy Center of West Michigan’s Customized Workplace English program helped him improve his English writing, vocabulary, reading, and listening skills.

After a couple of months of working at Haworth, Nematy was invited to join the Literacy Center of West Michigan’s Customized Workplace English program at Haworth program. He wanted to know the catch. How much would it cost? Would he have to take time off work? How would he get there without a car?

The Customized Workplace English program is a free class offered during paid working hours. Over the course of 15 weeks, the twice-weekly classes cover topics from the English alphabet and grammar to conversational skills, reading maps, understanding instructions and workplace-specific vocabulary and is in multiple workplaces in West Michigan.

Through the program at Haworth, Nematy has improved his written English skills and earned a promotion to machine operator 2. As a result, he is now focused on career advancement within Haworth.  
Reza Nematy's work at Holland-based Haworth Inc. earned him a promotion after he improved his English skills with the Literacy Center of West Michigan’s Customized Workplace English program.
When he first arrived, Nematy says, he was even afraid to attempt a phone call in English.

“I was not able to make these calls to make appointments for my family even if they needed to go to the doctor,” he says.

The program has helped Nematy with his English writing, vocabulary, reading, and listening skills.

“Reza represents the situation of so many of our learners. He has powerful skills, abilities and dreams and shows remarkable resiliency in pursuing them,” says Marcus Little, Customized Workplace English director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan. “Reza understood, with certainty, that he would not be returning to his home country and was determined to make the best life possible for his family here, even if it meant starting over.” 
The Literacy Center of West Michigan will celebrate Nematy’s journey at the 30th Annual Spellebration event. The fundraising event will help the Literacy Center of West Michigan to double the number of adults served who read below the fourth-grade level. The Spellebration is 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, at Leona Road event venue, 351 Leonard St NW in Grand Rapids. Tickets are available at
Other honorees

In addition to Nematy, The Literacy Center of West Michigan will honor:  
  • Dr. Ken Fawcett, former vice president of Corewell Health Healthier Communities with the Champion of Literacy Award  
  • Barbara Rapaport, president of Real-time Perspectives, Inc., with the Ledy Award for Community Engagement 
  • Penny Hoffman, a Literacy Center of West Michigan volunteer tutor, with the Volunteer of the Year Award
“Ken understood that the solutions were already in the community and was skilled at pulling together diverse partners to examine and address social determinants of health,” says Literacy Center of West Michigan Executive Director Wendy Falb. “As a result of Ken’s leadership and vision, a two-generational approach to literacy is now a key pillar in Healthier Communities’ approach to strengthening health outcomes for all.”
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Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.