This week, I started up an ESL class for Iraqi women again. You may remember (or possibly not—why should you remember my life? It’s hard enough to keep track of yours!) that I did a class this summer, because I had an intern who needed something to do. (She never did make me coffee. I regret this. I may never have another intern) It was a roaring success for the 3 who came and when it ended, they were shocked, in spite of having been told the end date when we started. “What? Why?” they said. “Why no class?” I sighed and realized we still had a long way to go, and promised I would do my best to offer it again.

As refugees, the women are entitled to free classes at Portland Community College (PCC, or if you’re an Arab speaker just learning English, BBC. Your choice), so why would they bother coming to me? The classes at PCC are much better funded, in actual classrooms, with more curriculum and resources. But I offer rides to class, I’m also free, and in the summer at least, I had friends standing by with tea and biscuits, providing a break for conversation in the middle of the 2 hours. I’m more fun!

Plus, I am willing to honor them by visiting their houses and eating with them. You may think I’m making a joke, as I used to joke about entering whole-heartedly into Mauritanian society’s view that fat women are beautiful by scarfing down the dark chocolate. But I’m not joking. In Arab society, I honor you by visiting you and letting you feed me enormous, ridiculously elaborate feasts. It’s a role I can live with. I’m doing better at being honored too, although that’s still stressful and tiring. (And indeed, the compliment is to protest and say, “You have made yourself very tired Why?”) But my point is that I develop friendships with my students, which isn’t something they can really do at PCC, and when you are recently-arrived in a new country, you need friends.

I have a new student (well I have several, but she is the topic of this post. All that time you’ve wasted on what is only an introduction! Sorry…) who isn’t at the same level as the others. That’s another difference between me and PCC—I don’t really have the luxury of screening, of teaching a group who are all basically the same level. Instead, I get whoever wants to come. And Fiona wants to come! She is about 70, from the north of Iraq, already speaking 2 languages but launching with great enthusiasm on her 3rd. She’s brown-skinned with a narrow face framed by an immaculate white hijab (headscarf), sweet and spunky at once. Although her level of reading consists of “s-t-u-d-e-n-t” rather than “student” (in other words, she can’t even put the letters together just yet), she wants to come to what is really a lower intermediate class.

This wouldn’t be a problem if she viewed her role as just listening. But she is the oldest in the class, so everyone needs to make sure she feels welcome and comfortable by stopping to translate to her everything I’ve just said, including all the examples in English I’ve given. Also, every so often, she will decide it’s her turn, and she’ll just go off—about her life in Iraq, her children (she has 9 of them, scattered around the globe), what she thinks about languages, her thoughts on cooking, and other things. This, in turn, has to be translated back to me, so I, as the teacher and therefore deserving of respect (and also as their friend), do not feel left out.

On the one hand, our class is a little casual. Sometimes, this summer, we had a baby. Sometimes we only have 2 students. When Leslie taught, sometimes I would correct the homework that I’d forgotten to get to between classes. On the other hand, my students really need to learn English in order to function here. So I’m a little torn.

On the second day of class, Maude mentioned that she’d gotten fresh grape leaves from my backyard. (My neighbours grow them, and they hang over the fence.) Next thing I knew, Maude, Fiona and I were standing in the rain filling plastic grocery bags with leaves. Fiona took home 2 bags stuffed to bursting, and told me to come back at 5 to pick up dolma, made specially for me.

I was late, but I did make it. I sat and ate with her and her daughter, just a little. Her daughter chatted animatedly, telling me she ran 3 offices in Iraq but here works at a convenience store. We talk about how she finds Portland, which is a rainy, liberal city with a high percentage of tattooed citizenry, unlike her home town. Then I am given a large tupperware filled with dolma—which are grape leaves, tomatoes, onions, and zuccini, stuffed with a mixture of meat and rice and spices. “It’s so healthy,” the daughter tells me, which makes me laugh. Their food is always “so healthy” while at the same time dripping with oil. All natural ingredients though!

I return home and feed my own family, dolma yes but also my own version of healthy food, mother’s cooking being a constant across cultures and languages.

 

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