Filthy slush had already soaked through the thin leather of my boots by the time I arrived at the Arab American Family Services Center in Brooklyn Heights. The elevator was broken, so I limped up the three flights of stairs clutching at my freshly stitched incision, feeling a surge of self pity with every step.
Most of the other volunteers had arrived by the time I stepped into the classroom, and I was ashamed for having felt sorry for myself as I surveyed the room. Only women were permitted there to prepare for the U.S. Citizenship Exam, and the contrast between the volunteers and the students was evident even down to the way they sat. The mostly American-born volunteers were relaxed but erect in posture, and commanded their space with the easy confidence of those who have been raised in relative comfort.
The students, many of whom are refugees fleeing abusive families or otherwise violent circumstances, slumped in their chairs and kept their hands tucked away under the table. I shuddered under the knowledge that these same women would later be interrogated by immigration officials demanding to know whether they had ever had sex for money or been affiliated with a terrorist organization.
I was assigned to tutor a woman named Aidah, whom I quickly learned spoke only the English words covered in pages 1-17 of the book. The book itself was arranged in haphazard order, with a detailed description of the U.S. flag and the Pledge of Allegiance printed on one of the first pages. As I labored to teach Aidah the meaning of the word “country” using only the words “America” and “Yemen,” I wondered how I could possibly explain the pledge to her. It turned out that the geniuses behind the manual had preemptively solved that problem by stating that the pledge is the way to express love for America. Gag.
Aidah and I lurched along for the next hour, the reporter in me trying to tease out details of her history along the way. She spoke so softly, I had to strain to hear her speak, and my efforts to praise her only seemed to make her more nervous.
It wasn’t until the end of the session that I was able to get Aidah’s story from the volunteer coordinator. She had apparently arrived six months from Sana’a, and though she looked closer to 40, was in reality about my age. I touched my own face, soft from daily moisturizing and free of dark circles even despite the recent stress, and wondered if Aidah and the others resented the volunteers.
The coordinator went on to explain that Aidah, like many of the women there, had never learned to read even Arabic, so they were building literacy from the most basic building blocks of language. I flashed back to the tangled hutongs of Beijing plastered with dirty signs crammed with Chinese characters, and my frustrations with illiteracy there – and I could at least read the pinyin. It’s a good thing Aidah has six and a half more years to study.
As we chatted, a tiny boy burst from the folds of the burqa on the woman across from me, where he had been concealed for the past hour or more. His mother beamed at me, as if it was perfectly normal for a child to explode out of one’s dress, and I smiled back hopefully at the two of them.
Immigration officials must have hearts of stone.