Last summer, Emily Griffith Technical College, an arm of Denver Public Schools, put out a call for volunteer English teachers for refugees. The college holds English classes that many attend, but there are those that cannot travel to class for various reasons and require home visits. My last full-time jobs were teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) abroad in two countries, and I enjoyed the communication and cultural exchange that teaching language made possible. And so I applied and was accepted, assigned to instruct a Middle Eastern woman with young children twice a week. I will call her Safiya. (The volunteers have been asked not to use actual names publicly, since, in some cases, that may endanger a refugee.)
For my first visit, I accompanied the director of the program to their home while she administered an oral test to assess the student’s starting level. Safiya answered in one-word responses but, having been in the United States for several years, she understood most of the questions and answered appropriately, although briefly. The director assigned her “Level Two,” a disappointment to the woman, but “better than Level One!” the director encouraged. At the end of the session, Safiya asked, “Me good?” Oh, my, I thought, we have a long way to go. We agreed upon meeting times and I left to prepare for English lessons at a level much lower than I had taught before.
Reluctant to dive into grammar terminology too soon, such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, subjects, objects, and so on, I started with simple sentences, common words and verbs. What is a sentence? She checked for the Arabic word on her cell phone translator. “I” is at the beginning of a sentence, “me” is at the end—this seemed to be the easiest way to explain. After a few sessions, she typed a message into her translator and showed me, “We will focus on the composition of sentences.” I was pleased to agree with her on a direction, but more than that, this translation made evident to me her intelligence, often difficult to appreciate in stunted communication, and lifted my expectations for success, and my spirits as well.
In one of our first sessions, I printed sentences and cut them up, creating a fun exercise, which Safiya would put in order, and, another time, made cards with opposite terms she could match. But I soon realized this approach would not work well in this setting. The children were grabby and wanted those little pieces of paper, wanted to play the game!
The three children at home had nicknames. There were twin boys, one-and-a-half year old, and a girl who turned three during the time of our lessons. It wasn’t long until I could tell the twins apart. Their faces expressed their personalities. Aloosh had big eyes that housed his intense curiosity, eyebrows often raised in question, and was huggy, affectionate, loving. Doodee’s eyes were more narrow and somehow combined with his erect posture, calm expression, and knowing smile to exude confidence. Foofah, happy and adorable, loved learning, singing the alphabet song, counting, dancing around the room, proud of her abilities and progress. And, like all children, they alternately fought over toys, shared them, hit and hugged each other.
I loved watching Safiya, a warm and devoted mother, with her children. I came to teach in the mornings, and as each child awoke and ran into the living room, our place for lessons, she would scoop them up, hug and kiss them, rock and sing to them, until they turned to me with a big smile to say hello and answer my “good morning” with a high five. Safiya would scold them when they hit or fought or even bit, but then, a few moments later, would laugh and hug them. I brought worksheets we would talk through during the lessons, filling in the gaps, practicing reading and writing as well. The boys would come to look at the paper, sometimes try to take it, but, increasingly, would poke their fingers onto the page making a sound that emulated reading. They would all learn quickly, bilingually, I knew, already understanding and using both Arabic and English words. Safiya learned English from them and their children’s videos, and from reading with an older child in elementary school, each generation teaching the other.
In addition to learning English, I helped translate announcements from school and from the local community organization that connected them to non-profit groups providing turkey at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas, help filing taxes, and other assistance as needed. And I learned more about their hardships and travels, having spent several years in a transitional country before being accepted as refugees and placed in Colorado. Fortunately, they were able to arrange their resettlement before the current administration curtailed immigration for so many needy people and families.
After six months, she could describe her time since our last lesson in sentences using the past tense, “I visited my friend…” and “I went shopping…,” tell me about her children’s antics and their activities at the park, what they like, what they all will do tomorrow, her vocabulary and expressions growing. But the arrival of the coronavirus changed our lives. Even if the school hadn’t closed, Safiya’s children had frequent colds and I was reluctant to compromise my immune system (I’m in my late 60s). In the past, we had texted whenever one of us needed to cancel. Her texts always addressed me as “my teacher,” as she called me in person. Her closing text, after each exchange was a collection of emojis: kisses, flowers, and hearts. This last time we promised to “miss you” and wished each other good health. And I will treasure those lovely emojis, hoping we will meet again sometime.