Step By Step: Teaching and Learning with Syrian Refugees

Fara in her new Clarkston apartment with a photo of her family

When I first heard about the atrocities in Syria, I felt I needed to do something, even if only to make myself feel a little less powerless. I sat on that feeling for a while, until this past August I got an opportunity to donate some items to newly arrived Syrian refugee families through a small grassroots organization called Empowering Refugees Atlanta (check out their website and Facebook). I sent enthusiastic emails to the main organizer and asked how else I could help. She gave me information about donations and told me they were also looking for English teachers — it would be no problem if I had no teaching experience or no Arabic. I didn’t have either. My anxiety welled up in my chest and I told her that I was too busy. I decided that buying a new microwave and vacuum, clothes, books about America, Atlanta Braves shirts and flip flops — that was enough, right? It’s so much easier to throw money at a problem.

But then my husband and I went to deliver the items we’d gotten. We drove a few miles east of Atlanta to Clarkston, a small city that’s taken in more Syrian refugees (and refugees in general) than most places in the country. Not surprisingly, the refugee resettlement agencies are totally overwhelmed. These families are set up with an apartment and some basic appliances. They get some pointers on finding jobs and clothes. They get a modest stipend based on the number of adults and kids in each family — but only for the first three months they’re here. That money gets cut in half the fourth month. After that? They’re on their own. They have to find a job in those three months in order to afford the basics: rent, utilities, groceries, and so on. They qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, but everything else is out of pocket. Imagine trying to find a job without speaking the language, without prior work experience in certain fields, without a car in a city like Atlanta, with physical and psychological injury from the war.

We got to the first of three apartments and carried our donated items up to the door. We arrived around lunchtime and they were sitting on the floor on a round cloth, each taking helpings of a delicious-smelling meal in a big bowl in the middle. They insisted we join, so we did — we wanted them to feel that they could give us something, too. We both took a spoonful and it was amazing. We asked what was in it, and one of the sons took out his phone and, through the Google Translate app, told us, “chicken, chickpeas, and love.” I melted.

The Al Salibs (names changed) were the second family we visited and I fell in love with them instantly. Daania opened the door when we knocked, and then let us in, with a shy smile. Her little sister, Faiza, smiled at us and their mother, Fara, pointed to the couch and said one of the English words she knew: “tea, tea!” We sat and she brought us delicious ginger tea. Daania nervously said, “Hello. I am Daania. I am 12.” Faiza did the same thing — “I am Faiza. I am 7.” This seemed to be the only thing they knew how to say in English. We sat and drank tea with them — the two girls, Fara, and their father, Salim. Fara told me, using the Google Translate app, that she wanted to learn English. Again, I melted. I looked at her and my anxieties felt like nothing compared to what she’d been through. I said, almost too eagerly, “I will teach you English!” They had captured me.

Now, I teach them for 2 to 3 hours every Saturday. At first, I was nervous to teach — it’s something I have no experience with. But it’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. At the start of our first lesson, Fara taught me an Arabic saying: “shwaya shwaya.” Step by step. That’s been our mantra this whole time. Sometimes I’m blown away by how hard English is. There’s no reason that “neighbor” and “laughter” are spelled so similarly and pronounced so differently. The family knows the look on my face when I’m about to tell them that I know what I’m teaching doesn’t make sense. I just say, “English is crazy” and we laugh.

Early on, I made sure to mention to them that I was Jewish. I just wanted to make sure it was out there. They didn’t really have a reaction. They just nodded, and I got the sense they found comfort in knowing that I’m also a minority in this country. But it’s pretty powerful to recognize that my father-in-law, an Israeli, fought against Syrian soldiers decades ago during the Yom Kippur war. Now, Israel brings injured Syrians across the border to their hospitals and just announced they’ll be welcoming Syrian orphans from Aleppo. And I spend 3 hours a week with a Syrian family I love.

Here’s my long, rambling point: Syrian refugees are just normal people. The girls are silly and sweet. They love when I give them stickers to reward them for getting verb conjugation right. Fara is effusively kind, with a smile that lights up her entire face. Her husband has no ego about being taught a new language by a young American woman. Sometimes I give him one of the kid’s stickers when he speaks English well, and he shoots me a smile as if we are in cahoots. Just like his girls, he places the stickers carefully at the back of his notebook so he can see all of them and mark his progress.

After our lessons, we like to spend a few minutes dancing around just having fun together. The girls love Justin Bieber songs and dancing the Whip Nae Nae. They were excited to show me the steps to Cotton-Eyed Joe and the Macarena today. They didn’t believe me when I told them I learned those dances when I was their age. I was surprised to learn how amazing muscle memory is; after 15 years, I still remember all the steps to Cotton-Eyed Joe. And it doesn’t get much more American than dancing to the Macarena.

At the same time, they’re not normal people — they’ve been through absolute hell. Salim has heart problems and very high blood pressure, mostly from the stress. He was held by the Assad regime for five months, but we don’t really talk about it. Fara asked me one week what “worried” meant. She said the doctor kept saying, “too worried, too worried.” I tried my best to be comforting while I explained that it seemed like the doctor was saying Salim’s heart problems were a result of his stress levels. She looked at me and just put her head in her hand, laughing in full knowledge that simply “worrying less” was not a plausible option for them.

I bring them things they need when I can find them, like a cheap but good condition used laptop I found on Facebook Marketplace, a coffee table, clothes, shoes, even just a wall clock. I’ve posted about their needs on Facebook and NextDoor and the reactions from my friends, family, and neighbors has been truly remarkable. One woman down the street from me donated bikes so the family could get around in our sprawling city. She had an old Lite Brite she gave me, too, and the girls LOVE it. It’s clear that so many people want to help and just don’t know how.

What’s happening in the world right now is terrifying. Our new president seems to be promising the destruction of everything we thought was safe, threatening civil liberties that were taken for granted only a year ago. In a much more significant way, my Syrian family must have felt that way, too. Nobody plans on having to flee their country, where all their friends and family are, where they imagined without doubt they would spend the rest of their lives. Their world fell apart and they’re one of the lucky families who got out and landed in a safe place. But they’re still struggling and trying to make things work in this new world. I get so worried about them, especially when Salim was still looking for a job. Fortunately, he’s got one now. The only thing that gives me solace is repeating, “shwaya shwaya” to myself. Step by step. Every week, they’ll get better at English and more situated here. And we just found out that Fara is pregnant. Every week now, her belly will be a little bigger as her new American baby grows.

Step by step, my Syrian family will get stronger and more comfortable in their new home. And step by step, the incoming administration seems to be doing all it can to destroy what we love about our country. That destruction bleeds over into the whole world. I’m trying to remember, whenever I feel unthinkably overwhelmed with desperation at what’s happening, that step by step, we can rebuild our country and fight for what’s right. America is still an experiment. Clearly, America means different things to different people, as we learned in November. But shwaya shwaya, we will keep working and fighting to make America the place we know it can be. Step by step.

If you are in the Atlanta, GA area and would like to get involved, please visit the Empowering Refugees Atlanta website for more information. And please consider donating to Empowering Refugees Atlanta’s new GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to purchase cars for these families. A car can change a life — so we appreciate anything you can give. Thank you!