She invites me to sit on the black vinyl couch, with its split seams and billowing middle. We communicate with pointed fingers, slow words, and smiles. I don’t know this woman, but I will come to over the next four months. That’s how long I have to teach her how to do what I have assumed as common knowledge since I could hold a pencil.
Fill out a form.
Name. Address. Date of Birth. Something I have to do virtually every day. Something most of us grumble through, having to write or type it all our one more time. We feel immensely grateful for autofill on our browsers, as if typing an address is a major hardship. I know the sounds of impatience I make when I realize whatever site I’m on is not going to autofill. I find it irritating, infuriating on bad days.
It has never occurred to me that filling out a form is a luxury I am genuinely blessed to manage with ease.
My new friend can’t spell “Name.” She can’t read it. She doesn’t know what I mean when I ask her to pick out an “M” from the pile of UpWords tiles I have spread out before her, clattering all over the cloudy glass topped table. She, who has to fill out school forms for her four children, endless forms for doctors, insurance and apartment rental . . . cannot complete the first word of this thing we take for granted.
I get the privilege of teaching her.
She will persist, because she knows she needs to know this. God knows, she has persisted through much worse.
I don’t have any idea what this woman has persisted through.
I don’t know her past life, but I know some basic facts: At the end of 2015, refugees from her country numbered 495,724. Living conditions for most refugees in host countries near hers are harsh, unhealthy, and unsafe. Overcrowded conditions with no opportunities for work or recreation result in high rates of sexual violence, prostitution, early pregnancy, and school dropouts. Many refugees suffer from a high degree of trauma from their exposure to violence, torture, and assault.
In her country, a woman is raped every minute. It is the highest rate in the world. In her country, boys are regularly abducted into the militia and forced to torture and kill innocent people. Young girls are abducted to “serve” the men. This violence has become the norm in society as it trickles outward.
This is what her family fled. I don’t know if she had any other children they lost there. It’s likely. I don’t know what may have happened to her or her small daughter. I may not want to. I know she is fortunate to still have her husband. The fact that I can’t write her name or country here is partly for privacy, partly for safety.
They have been here three months. The transition is beyond my comprehension. Urban vs. rural. English vs. Swahili. Work in a factory vs. work outdoors. School vs. home. As one woman puts it, “There are so many places to go every day. I was so worried I could never be successful. I would never learn all the places and things I have to do. It is so hard when you come.”
She and her husband and four children are willing to start over. Lose everything. Take any opportunity offered. Just to live without constant fear. And yet, all I hear from videos like this one and from people who attend the English classes I’ve helped with is how hopeful they are and how they know, with time, life will be good again. All I experience are smiles and hand shakes and deeply sincere thank you’s. I am floored by this faith in the face of whatever they have endured.
So this woman whom I cannot name is my poster child for #Nevertheless, She Persisted. This is the most amazing persistence I can imagine.
That first day this week, we sat on her couch, together filtering through the clattery, plastic letters. I quickly realized I needed tiles that showed lower case letters, not only upper case. Which is she more likely to encounter every day? I also quickly realized I had no idea how to explain the concept of upper and lower case letter to someone who had never learned to read and could not understand my words. What ever would you say? I just kept repeating, “Big, small, same thing.” And smiling. We smiled so much.
My lesson plan of eleven words immediately cut to four. Four words—just the words that would enable her to write her name. That will take us a couple weeks. Adding the address and anything else will come in time.
Meanwhile, we played a game to lighten up the work. An easy board game of rolling a die, moving our red and green horse pieces I had pilfered from my daughter’s Lord Of The Rings Risk game, and answering questions. What’s you favorite food? What’s your address? How many people are in your family?
She beat me to the finish line. She was so thrilled. I learned that her favorite color is white and her favorite food is rice. I learned small things about her that first day. Every week, I hope to learn more. Small things will add up, and one day I may know this woman whose persistence is beyond my imagination.
For now, I’m going out to buy flashcards. With lower case letters. Because I am the privileged one who gets to teach her how to use them and to have a front row seat to her persistence. I am dumbfounded. Astounded. Amazed. Every adjective in the Thesaurus. I can’t believe I am so lucky.