Ever since FeLT was formed, I have admired its mission. In a time when many immigrants feel unwelcome and even frightened, I have wanted to add my voice as an American to the chorus of caring, openhearted people who empathize with the difficulties of getting settled and assimilating into another culture.
Yet, I was nervous and afraid. I’m not proud to admit it, but I had never volunteered for anything! Plus, I am very shy around strangers. I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to offer. But here is the thing:
Once upon a time, that was my grandmother!
In 1940, she fled with my grandfather and my infant mother from wartime Belgium, coming to this country not knowing the language or the customs. Then as now, immigrants and refugees were not exactly welcomed with open arms by many in America. But my life as an American would not have been possible without her courage and perseverance. I take my secure status as a citizen for granted, but a generation ago my family were strangers in a strange land too. So with that in mind, I told myself that if these women today can have the courage to show up and learn, reach for a better life, surely I can overcome a little shyness and see if there’s anything I can do to make their journey easier.
So, biting my lip with trepidation, I hopped on a subway and headed to an East Harlem school to meet my dear friend Caroline, who created this organization. I hadn’t stepped foot inside a school in ages. It was a little disorienting and I felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what I would find, or if I had the tools to help.
One by one the students filed in. Women in hijab, one even in a full veil. Some women who spoke maybe ten words of English, and some who were further along. Some younger than me, some older, but with shy smiles and determination in their demeanor. I wondered how I appeared to them, a freckle-faced Jew with tattoos and uncovered hair. We exchanged names, settled in, and got to work. Caroline led the class with so much energy and skill, and all I had to do was be an echo, someone they could practice with, correct pronunciation or just cheer on. There were laughs and frustrations and moments of “ah-ha!” It was exhilarating. I learned who was confident, and who was hesitant, and felt so much compassion and desire to bring everyone into the lesson. The time flew. I even learned a word or two of Arabic!
Afterward, I wasn’t so sure if I’d done a great job. I felt like maybe I’d gotten more out of the experience than the students. But then we received an email from one of the women in the class. She said, “Thank you to the friendly smiling teachers with beautiful souls.” Even if I accomplished nothing else that first day, I was a friendly face to someone who needed it.
It was my first, but it won’t be my last time volunteering!