I really don’t want to eat a plateful of salty, greasy fried eggs with my hands at 10:00 in the morning, not that long after I had a bowl of healthy cereal and a large cup of really strong coffee (black). But I do. I dig in, tearing off bits of thin wheat flatbread and segments of American cheese (known in our house as plastic cheese, because of both its wrapping and flavour).  I sip at sweet black tea, a tiny glass brimming with hot tea with about 4 teaspoons of sugar stirred in. It is so over-the-top that I start an instant sugar headache.

I’m not losing any weight these days.

What I am doing is working with an organization that assists newly arrived Iraqi refugees. Who knew there were so many of them in the Portland area? Within about 3 miles of my house, there are over 30 families in various stages of culture shock, possession of the English language,  and basic, overall adjustment. And I need to respect them, and their culture. I am helping them and they are returning the favor as best they can, by feeding me. I am their guest, so they must feed me. I know the rules, unspoken but binding, and so I eat eggs and cheese even though I’m not in the least bit hungry.

I am sitting in a spotless but mostly empty apartment. This family has only beds, one couch, a table and some mismatched chairs to their names, yet every day that carpet is vacuumed when I arrive. The 13 year old son goes out in a t-shirt, and his father tells me he’s always hot—the truth is he doesn’t have a coat yet. The 12 year old daughter wears sandals through the sodden puddles of a bitter November day.

I have been helping them get their kids registered in school, a process made more complicated by the fact that they don’t speak English or French, and my Arabic is minimal and from a completely different part of the world. The first day, we registered the 15 year old and the 13 year old at a middle school, but the next day the school phones me and asks to set up an appointment with an interpreter; they are going to put the 15 year old in high school, and move the 12 year old up to middle school. When I tell the children this, they get incredulous grins. “Me…high school?” says the boy. When I say yes, he gives me a huge smile then asks again, just to make sure he got it right.

So on Wednesday, we all set off—6 kids, 2 parents, and me—and arrived only 20 minutes late for our appointment, which I considered a job well done.

Now I’m going to back up a minute. You might remember how, here and here, and kind of here, I was sort of griping about the American schools. I haven’t become their biggest fan, but I’m definitely doing better. I was impressed, at parent-teacher conferences several weeks ago, how well the teachers actually knew my kids, and how much they are doing to push them in the right direction. (Sorry, my diction is off. I meant “how much they are encouraging them to reach their full potential.” Now wouldn’t that sound better on a website?)

But this meeting. There’s the refugee family and the interpreter and me and the counselor and  ESL coordinator, all in a windowless room with brightly-coloured posters and industrial table and chairs. The counselor starts off. He gestures widely. “Please tell them,” he says to the interpreter, “how very happy we are that they are here. We hope they will feel welcome. They are safe here. We want to help each of them succeed at learning and becoming who they want to be.”

The whole meeting has this tone. It comes out that the children haven’t really ever gone to school, except the 15 year old who only went to grades 1 and 2. With the war, it just wasn’t safe. The parents were worried about roadside bombs, shootings, kidnappings, and kept their kids home. Every night their sleep was disturbed. Every day the father was threatened because he worked security for an American company.

The interpreter is an Arabic woman who lived in France for several years, and you can tell from her outlook. “So they know nothing,” she tells the counselor, somewhat dismissively. “They can’t even read and write in Arabic. They will have to start at the beginning.” I suppress a tiny grin at this. I know my cultures a bit, and this way of expressing things reflects her background perfectly. I suppress another grin as the school counselor tells the kids, “It will be overwhelming at first but don’t worry—soon you’ll get it and we will make it as fun as possible.” I doubt that “having fun at school” is a concept they’ve been introduced to before.

Throughout the whole (long) meeting, the school expresses hope, that learning can happen and that it can be fun. The kids are all given new backpacks stuffed with school supplies, and the 6 year old just freezes onto her backpack, too overwhelmed to even smile. “Does she like it?” asks the school secretary, and I assure her. I doubt this child has ever had anything like this pink Disney princess backpack to call her own before, much less the brand-new packs of crayons and pencils inside it.

Everyone is welcoming and reassuring. It can’t be easy, taking in older children who don’t read or write English and don’t know math or science or history and hoping to get them through high school in a semi-timely manner, but you wouldn’t know it from how they smile, how they effuse, how they make comments like “You can just tell they are bright kids.” They have researched their files to find other students who speak Arabic, who can help the kids adjust. They are pulling in all the resources they can to help with ESL and math tutoring and everything that will be needed.

And in my cantankerous grumpy old heart, I’m glad. Oh sure, one can complain at the excess of self-esteem classes, and I do and will continue to do so. But the belief that each child can succeed is going to go a long way with this family.

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