I was brought up in a family which placed a lot of emphasis on service, and while in high school, I volunteered regularly as a Candy Striper at the local hospital. I still remember at least one aspect of my training: the particulars of how to make a bed military style. What really stayed with me was a strong belief that helping others is an essential aspect of good citizenship. Happily, many schools are recognizing this as well and now require students to devote a certain number of hours to community service prior to graduation.
In order to fulfill this requisite, Peter wanted to volunteer at a local animal shelter, where his time would have been spent cleaning cages. I felt there was potential for a more rewarding experience, and continued searching until I found a notice from an organization called New American Africans. They were looking for volunteers to teach ESL, or English as a Second Language. Peter and I both submitted applications (if I was going to provide the transportation, I figured I might as well participate) and we went to Concord for an interview with Honore Murenzi, the director of the program. And then we got started.
The students are primarily political refugees from Bhutan; ironically, I wrote a now seemingly naive post about Bhutan and Gross National Happiness three years ago. At the time I was unaware that Bhutan is a place with a complicated history, and that not everyone has equal access to happiness, as demonstrated in this nuanced article by Kai Bird from the March 26, 2012 issue of The Nation. The author addresses the forcible expulsion in the 1990’s “of an estimated 80,000 Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry.” Most of those expelled as a result of poorly disguised ethnic cleansing languished in Nepalese refugee camps for almost two decades. The United States (and a handful of other countries, including Canada) ultimately agreed to accept a significant number of refugees, and between March of 2008 and September of 2012, 60,000 Bhutanese resettled in the US.
It’s daunting to think of what these people have already faced and the challenges that still await them, starting with the difficulty of adapting to a foreign culture where you don’t speak the language. Those who come to ESL class range in age from perhaps twenty to sixty five. Many of them have never been schooled, and progress is slow. However, their tenacity is inspiring, and Peter and I have enjoyed getting to know these remarkable people.
Unfortunately, once I started chemotherapy, I was unable to maintain our weekly schedule. However, we hired a young woman, Abbey, to help out with transportation occasionally, and she has enabled Peter to honor his commitment. Now he sometimes leads a class of more than a dozen students by himself.
Last week I felt well enough to take Peter myself. After class one of the students approached me to ask if Peter and I could come to her house for dinner that night. This was not the first time she had made this invitation, and although Peter needed to get home to work on an assignment, it was clear that we needed to honor her request.
And this is why: many months ago we had taken several families from our class to the grocery store—which meant walking a mile each way—something they do on a regular basis no matter the weather. Our intent was to show them how to use coupons. Ultimately, our effort was misguided, as the coupons were for significantly more expensive brands and therefore of little use. However, Peter and I helped identify cheaper products that were on special, and we loaded up a cart. As it turned out, there was some confusion at checkout regarding vouchers, and I ended up charging quite a few of the groceries to my credit card.
The next week, everyone shyly paid me back, but one woman was several dollars short. I told her not to worry about it, that she could have us over for dinner some time. The woman was the same one who had repeatedly asked us to come to her home for a meal, and although I had made the comment about having us over for dinner in an offhand way, that is not how it had been received. It was my turn to learn something.
And so our friend, named Phalguna, got in our car and we rode together to the apartment complex where many of the refugees are housed. When we arrived, her husband was resting on the couch, but he sat up and indicated that we should sit next to him. He spoke very little english, but we did our best to engage in small talk as Phalguna busied herself in the small kitchen. I was interested in the ancient sewing machine that sat next to the table, and with the help of his ‘third daughter’, Phalguna’s husband explained that he was a tailor. He rose to fetch some examples of the clothing that he made; saris and men’s button down shirts.
And then Phalguna set glasses of water and two steaming plates upon the table and invited Peter and I to sit down. “Namaste” she said, and as the three family members watched, Peter and I ate the dumplings stuffed with cabbage, onion, ginger and cilantro that Phalguna and her husband had made earlier in the day.
The dumplings were delicious. After we had eaten our fill, Phalguna placed a generous helping in a plastic container for us to take home and Peter and I said thank you and goodbye. The entire experience had been unexpected and just a little bit of awkward but a whole lot of wonderful. And, just as we have throughout our time with New American Africans, we felt as if we had gotten back far more than what we had given.