Friday, November 30, 2007

Teaching English to Refugees

Twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday, I leave the library at 5:15 for the Tahrir Square Metro station in downtown Cairo. I purchase a ticket for one Egyptian pound and board the north train to Marg. I travel 13 stops north to the neighborhood of Ain Shams, a trip of about 30 minutes. 13 stops twice a week.

The trains are always crowded at this time, and often I have to push my way on the train and burry myself in the deep crowd of Cairenes. The sights and sounds of the Metro are a worth the trip itself. The TV’s broadcast the afternoon call to prayer, the poor sell cheap trinkets in the car, and the beggars pass out slips of paper describing their families and providing blessings from the Qur’an for those who are generous to the less fortunate. Old men in traditional robes and turbans sit next to young girls dressed in colorful dresses and hijabs. The pious softly chant recitations from their pocket Qur’an. I listen to snippets of conversations and pick up a few words here and there. I draw stares. I am the only white person on the train.

“Aiywa, binzil hina,” I say to the man next to the door. This is where I get off. Once out of the Metro station, I walk just two or three minutes to the El-Wafa center, a small hole-in-the-wall facility nestled between two clothing shops. There is a small reception area where the center’s director works. Down the hallway is a small bathroom and two small classrooms with a few chairs and a chalkboard. Basic yet sufficient.

Classes are taught in pairs, and I was blessed to have a wonderful partner named Vicki. Unfortunately she left last week for the US because of serious health complications of a close family member. She was so helpful and a patient teacher, and I hope everything works out for the best.

I teach a low intermediate class of about 5 or 6 students (attendance is not always consistent, but I have my regulars). They are all men in their late 20’s and early 30’s. All of them are natives of the Darfur region of Sudan and have come to Cairo to escape the war, hunger, and crime caused by a complex tribal and sectarian power struggle. If you looked at them, however, you would never guess that they were victims of one of most brutal humanitarian crises today. Their economic situation is surprisingly good all things considered. They wear clean clothes and own cell phones. They have jobs. But they are Sudanese and not Egyptian. When we were having a conversation about weddings in America, one student says he’s waiting to get married until after he returns to Sudan. I wonder if that will ever happen.

We do not discuss families in class. I do not know what these men have seen or done. I do not know where their families are or what has happened to them. As recommended by STAR, I leave this topic open. They have the freedom to say what they want, but so far none of them have mentioned their pasts except for a few unspecific comments here and there. Although I have numerous questions about their personal lives, I am left to speculate.

We laugh and we learn together. Last week we ended class with a playful debate about the chicken and the egg, and everyone left with a smile. Their English is good enough for jokes, which is better than my Arabic, and the class provides a good outlet for my own language practice. Most of the time I speak English, but items are sometimes clarified in Arabic. This is especially true when I give them reading assignments with new vocabulary.

Classes are fairly flexible, and one of my favorite things to do is prepare a one page reading/speaking passage each class. The students like this too. It frees us from the doldrums of grammar and addresses what the students want to focus on in their language training. The passages are also an excellent cultural lesson, so I talk about American holidays, history, and traditions. Past topics included Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, football, and Native Americans. I also prepare pictures and videos on my computer to accompany the lesson. For example, to explain the rules of football, I downloaded footage from a Michigan-Michigan State football game. And last class, when discussing Native Americans, I played excerpts from Dances With Wolves showing examples of Indian song and dance and the spectacular buffalo hunt. They were enthralled. I’ve also learned a quite a lot about communication through these lessons, because expressing ideas with limited language skills can be a challenge. This was especially true when I did a lesson on American weddings (this was actually specifically requested by one student). I soon realized that I was in over my head. The cultural differences of marriage between Sudan and America are tremendous. I soon found myself trying to explain polygamy, dating, and dowries, and how in American polygamy is illegal, dating multiple people is common before marriage (but never more than one person at a time!), and dowries are nonexistent. “Can you get married without dating?” they asked me. I guess so, but it would never happen. “Do you have to give 100 cows to get married?” No, I responded. Trying to explain dating was impossible—the practice simply does not exist in Sudan, and they could not grasp the concept just as I cannot grasp the concept of seriously considering multiple wives.

After class, I walk back through Ain Shams to the Metro station, sometimes pausing to look at some of the shops along the way. I board the train again, always pleased that the rush hour crowd has dissipated. The 45 minute journey back to Dokki gives me a lot of time to think and reflect. One conclusion I’ve come to: I realize how fortunate I am to ride 13 stops on the north line.

Vicki and me at the refugee craft bazaar held monthly on AUC's main campus.

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