The best part about this, though, is that it’s a part time job. I spend half my time working on this project, but in the other 20 hours of my week, I have other stuff to do. I’m tutoring for a Karen refugee family in Saint Paul, through a tutoring service that hired me in December. Although some of the bureaucracy of working with a third-party contractor to the public school system has been exhausting and frustrating, I am absolutely in love with my kids and their family. They are kind, full of life, and welcoming. I love, love, love working with refugees and immigrants. As a teacher of English, especially to young children, I can really see the results that I am giving. That’s what I loved about teaching the little kids in Korea. The changes and the progress was very, very clear. Working with refugee families is hugely important to me as well. I can be an aid to people who are new to my country so that we can work together to make it our country. For kids it’s very much about success in school and English skills. It means a lot to me to be able to help these kids.
So on top of that, there’s the East African Women’s Center. I volunteered there before my time abroad, and I was so grateful and happy that they wanted me to come back and continue to volunteer. I love every minute I spend there–not always because I’m enjoying every minute, but because every minute feels totally worthwhile and 100% valuable. I’m volunteering with the pre-school, which is an absolute madhouse most of the time, but occasionally I get some of these adorable kids to sit down and read, or listen to classroom rules. They are kids to the core–full of love, full of rebellion, full of understanding, and really confused on why they can’t communicate with me. The new kids don’t speak English. Some of them hadn’t left their apartments until they came to the center. Some were born and raised in camps, their mothers are without husbands and without sponsors. For some, their behavior totally reflects that, and we constantly have discipline problems. Others just passively sit and pretend to understand what’s going on around them. But for a 3 year old, who has just learned how to speak his own language, and then gets transplanted to another country, where people look funny and talk in words that he’s never heard before–it’s just plain unsettling. I can’t imagine how confusing it must be. I can’t imagine how their little brains are putting this all together, or whether their little brains can put it all together.
What I do know, though, no matter how many discipline issues there are, or how powerless I can feel at times, that the tiny little victories that I can score with these kids make so. so. much of a difference. I try to imagine what it would be like if some of these kids went to kindergarten without coming here first. All I can see is the school system eating them up and spitting them out, their frustrated teachers, with 29 other kids to deal with, branding them as trouble makers and never being able to teach them anything about school. Never giving them a chance to learn what being in a classroom means, or how to interact with other kids, the school system would turn them into delinquents before they even knew what that meant. They just wouldn’t have the resources or the time, nor would they be able to work with whole families the way that the Women’s Center can.
When I first got back to the states, I got together with some old friends to see if perhaps we could rekindle friendships. After explaining to me that he worked at a store, one of these old friends announced that Somalis are thieves. (“I don’t care if that’s racist, because it’s true–they steal stuff and I have to keep an eye on them.”) When I see how people who don’t know any Somalis see Somali people, it infuriates me. But the sad truth is that people can’t even imagine what these kids and their families have gone through, nor can they understand the challenges they face in the US, after the camps and after the warfare. Here in the USA we like to think that when we bring people here–when we “get them out”, we’ve done everything we need to do. But anyone who’s lived in a foreign country for just a little while–or even traveled in a foreign country–understands that culture shock, language barriers, and bureaucracy barriers–not to mention xenophobia–can be a barrier just as crippling. Then people get labeled, because they become frustrated, act out against the system, or make mistakes. Little mistakes in our country are not easily forgiven. What do you think would happen if a new immigrant, a young Somali man, gets on the light rail for the first time, but mistakenly doesn’t understand how, where, or even that he needs to purchase a ticket? What happens when the transit police ask him for that ticket? Well, when you think that all Somalis are thieves, there’s not exactly any room in your head for “maybe he just doesn’t understand.”
Anyway, all of this has been a lot to swallow in two months. I’ve been keeping up at work, for the most part, but in my personal time, I’ve just been playing video games and sleeping. At the end of the day, when I come home, the silence of my personal life can be a little daunting. Luckily, I have tons of amazing people that I work with all day.