I recently have started helping a young man from Iraq with algebra. Thankfully I’ve been studying for the GRE and I’m not too rusty. But after two and half hours and only 30 math problems into the 50 problem homework, I felt disenfranchised with American education and walked away heartbroken for this young man.
This 15-year-old boy came to the US having been out of school for over 5 years due to the war in Iraq. Knowing no English, he was still placed in a public high school only to fail his first year. Now having been here for a few years, his English is pretty incredible and his accent is almost non-existent. But when it comes to knowing words like denominator, quotient, or divisible, those are not in his repertoire. As one of many students in his class, the likelihood of getting individual help is pretty slim for him, and the chance that he’ll ever catch up on the five years of education he missed is grim at best.
I’m far from saying that I know the best solution for this boy, but I feel he is being done an injustice. I am ever so grateful that my country has become a safe harbor for him and his family. But while he is protected from the bombings and shells, the effects from the war are still ever-present in his life as struggles to do 9th grade math with a 4th grade education.
Say a prayer for me, dear friends, that I will remember the rules for graphing a line, solving for x, and completing the quadratic equation. And most of all that I will have the ability to explain them in a way he can understand.
I have to say that working with the children in the refugee community has been quite a learning experience. It’s funny what comes from their mouths and just how innocent they are.
Before I started volunteering, I did my research on Burmese and Iraqi customs. Don’t touch their heads. Don’t point with my feet. Don’t give the thumbs up sign. I was reminded this week that just as I am learning their cultures, these kids are learning ours.
As I was playing with a group of children at the playground this week, an interesting topic came up. The middle finger. All the sudden one of the little girls runs up to me and says, “I can’t use my middle finger, right?” Before I could even answer, several of the little girls are pointing their middle fingers in the air and saying, “You can’t do this, but you can do this.” And then they quickly switch to their pointer finger. From there a whole conversation ensued about why we don’t use the middle finger in America. Thinking back on the conversation, I’m sure it became a topic of our discussion because one of these little ones unknowingly gave “the bird”. I can imagine one of these little girls raising their own middle finger to read a book or scratch their face, and being met with discomfort, discipline, or distraught behavior by their fellow American peers or teachers. If I were in their shoes, I’m sure I would make the same mistakes. If I went to Iraq, could I stop giving a thumbs up? If I was in Myanmar, could I ensure that I never touch a child’s head? I highly doubt I could. I just hope and pray that I can give the patience and guidance to these little ones, just as I would need if I were learning the customs of their home countries.
In the past, if I heard anyone speak with an accent, I would always wonder where they were from but would never ask. I thought it might be rude or make them feel uncomfortable. Well, I’ve thrown that notion out the window. For someone who is trying to be global from home, that just won’t work. Over the past several weeks, I came in contact with three individuals who were clearly not born in the U.S. based on their accents. Rather than just smiling politely and going my own way, I took the risk of asking where they were from.
The first was a Mexican man who was working at a restaurant here in OKC. I noticed he was a little shy telling me where he was from, but when I immediately responded that I had recently been to Mexico and really enjoyed exploring it, his mood visibly changed. He began to tell me about his hometown, how long he had been in the States, and then asked me my opinion on safety in Mexico. He said he had not visited home in years, but based on the news, he questioned how safe it would be to return to Mexico with his family.
My second experience was with a man who had recently come to the United States from Iraq. He told me about having to leave his wife and baby daughter in Baghdad but has hopes that he will be able to bring them over soon. He told me he wants to get his master’s degree in engineering and how his father went to college in the U.S. at the University of Georgia. We ended up spending several minutes talking about taking the TEFL and the quality of the Georgia football team this year.
The third person I met owns a furniture store in Atlanta and moved to the U.S. from Turkey 18 years ago. But before coming across the pond, she also lived in France and the UK. She talked about having her mother still in Turkey and the challenges of going back home to see her three or four times a year. She told me how she speaks four languages and her brother speaks five. We talked about technology and how something that is suppose to help connect us, often disconnects us from the person sitting beside us.
What I’ve been discovering is that behind the accent there is a story. Leaving your home country and moving is never easy – there are language challenges, family left behind, and new customs to learn. And while I certainly hope that I’m not offending the people I meet, I am so curious to hear about their stories. I am entranced as they tell about what they’ve overcome to be where they are, and I’m eager to hear why they left the familiarity of home to come here. In the end, each time I ask the question “Where are you from?” I believe I am taught something new about the world that I never would have learned if I had to decided to be just be polite and mind my own business.
When we moved to OKC, I knew I had to get involved. I’m too social of a person to sit at home all day. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading a good book and writing this blog, but a whole day without talking to someone is a long day for me. Taking the advice of my friend who did a guest post for me on volunteering with the refugee community, I started researching different organizations in Oklahoma City that assist refugees. And that’s when I found Spero Project. The Spero Project is a local non-profit organization that partners with local churches to serve under-resources communities. Their programming extends to single mothers, children in the foster care system, and families who are refugees in OKC.
I will be serving in their Learning Center where children from the refugee community can come and get help with homework, English, and just play. Adults can also come work on English and study for the TOEFL, their GED, or the citizenship exam. I had my first training on Tuesday and will have my first hours in the Learning Center this evening. Most of the children that I’ll be working with come from either Iraq or Myanmar. While I feel ready to help with fractions, I realized that I am not very familiar with the Iraqi or Burmese cultures. I know I will learn a lot while I’m with the kids, but I thought it might be good to know some basic etiquette to get me started.
Burmese Basic Etiquette:
- As a female, a smile or nod is the most appropriate ways to greet men.
- Never touch a person’s hair, head or cheek, even if you consider it as a friendly gesture.
- The upper part is considered sacred while lower part is considered inferior to the upper part, even considered dirty. Never mix the things you use for your upper part with that of the lower part.
- Do not use your feet to point at anything or anyone.
- Don’t cough, sneeze or blow your nose in the dining table.
- Present gifts (even a business card) with both hands.
Iraqi Basic Etiquette:
- The most common greeting is the handshake coupled with eye contact and a smile.
- Use your right hand to make contact with others and to eat.
- Do not point with a finger but rather with the entire hand.
- Always keep your word. Do not make a promise or guarantee unless you can keep it. If you want to show a commitment to something but do not want to make caste iron assurances then employ terms such as “I will do my best,” or “We will see.”
- Do not make the thumbs up or “ok” sign. They are considered obscene.
- Present gifts (even a business card) with both hands.
Last week the IRC here in San Diego did a showing of Salaam Dunk. I’ve never been much into documentaries but one of my students studied abroad in the Middle East and thought we could go together. I have to say that I was highly entertained and moved by their story. The film follows the season of the women’s basketball team at American University of Iraq. The team is in their second season and prior to coming to college, most of the girls had never ran, let alone played basketball. While their record and skills are somewhat dismal, they are redeemed by becoming a team and overcoming the barriers of ethnicity and religion. There were a few things that struck me about the film: 1) I was amazed at their English; most of the girls had perfect accents, 2) they were very honest about the war and the fear it invoked, which made me really think about what they went through, and 3) I thought it was amazing how a simple thing like basketball could be so controversial but also was a vehicle for reconciliation. Check out the trailer: