Actively Loving My Neighbors

We sat around two tables, ten women, a teacher, and me. Five women wore a hijab or some sort of covering. Four women were from Mexico. Two women relied on their friends for translation. We sat in a mobile classroom with a broken air conditioner, though during the morning class the heat wasn’t all that noticeable. We played a few name games, I helped a woman fill out a registration form, and after the coffee break we practiced leaving a voice message to let the teacher know if there was an absence or tardy.

school-375976_960_720Earlier this year, after the travel ban was enacted, I looked for ways to tangibly show my immigrant neighbors that they were welcome and a necessary part of our community. I reached out to a few different organizations but they were flooded with volunteers and yet had a lack of refugees who needed help. An acquaintance advised me to wait – that school would provide a more organic opportunity to help.

When I saw the poster at the Welcome Open House for Family Literacy, I immediately put my name down as a tutor. As a teacher, it was so hard to watch parents whose primary language wasn’t English try to decipher homework, forms, and school expectations. I knew that helping in the classroom was important, but if I could help parents help in their kids classrooms, that seemed exponentially more important.

Part of this program is English acquisition – practicing daily conversations and situations. Part of it is school specific – filling out forms, doing homework, understanding the new math curriculum. Part of it is teaching the parents how to volunteer in the classroom and give back to the school. It’s teaching them the cultural expectations and norms of American public education.

Our little class has just started meeting and already I’m excited for this year ahead. I look forward to the opportunity to get to know these other moms, not as student-teacher but as fellow moms at the school. I’m here to help with English but my goal is also to listen to their stories and to simply walk alongside them as we all navigate this world of elementary school together.

It’s such a small thing, this once a week commitment but it has already changed the way I read the news and world events. While I’m not out protesting or calling my representative’s office, and while we don’t have political signs in our front yard, I am making a political statement of welcome with my presence. I am actively loving my neighbor and our little circle of women gives me hope.

What are small ways you respond to world events? How do you actively love your neighbors?

Adventure

Ten years ago, I packed my bags and left Paris, ready for my Next Adventure. I had graduated in December and was in the typical “What Now” post-college quandary. I was contemplating going into education, but wasn’t sure if that was the right choice. I also missed the mountains I had grown up around, but wasn’t ready to go back home. I thought about places that had mountains, and one day, on a whim, I Googled: “Teaching English in Nepal.” After looking into various options, I settled on going to Kathmandu with a group called i-to-i, a volunteer abroad program. I took the TEFL certification courses and soon was ready to experience a new part of the world.

The flight alone was amazing. After our layover in Qatar, the plane was fairly empty. I slept most of the time until, right before we approached the Kathmandu Valley, a flight attendant woke me and asked if I wanted to see the Himalayas. I was up immediately, crossing to the other side of the plane, looking out on the world’s tallest mountains.

The next three months were unlike any other trip. I settled into my room at our guest house with the only other American in our group, also named Annie. My mornings were spent planning lessons on the rooftop, overlooking a city strung with prayer flags and drying laundry. On clear days, you could see Mt. Everest in the background. The smells of burning garbage, cooking dal-bhat and incense permeated my days. The constant noise of chimes, vendors, animals, and Bollywood soundtracks filled the air. It was, by far, the most foreign culture I had experienced.

In the afternoons, I would cross the polluted Vishnumati River and head toward Swayambhunath Temple, turning down a side street before the path led to the Monkey Temple. There, I taught 6th and 7th grade students at New Arunodaya English School. Since there were no supplies, I would think up vocabulary games and teach sentence structure using bits of chalk the students had snuck into the cracks in the walls. Because the Maoists were terrorizing the city, school was often closed for strike days. For those strikes, Annie and I would head out of the city to Pokhara, exploring other parts of the country, knowing we were safe on the tourist buses. On some occasions, all of Kathmandu would be shut down and we would spend hours on the rooftop terrace, playing gin rummy with the other volunteers.

There was such a dichotomy of experiencing Nepali culture. There were certain dangers of terrorist activity: One day I was planning lessons when two bombs were thrown in the lobby of a bank next door; Or the time our raft trip down the Kali Gandaki River was postponed because the bodies of people killed by the Maoists were dumped into the push-off point. The pollution was unlike any I had experienced – the country just doesn’t have the resources to properly process trash and waste. Some days, I was overwhelmed with walking along dusty roads, dodging traffic, wishing for sidewalks. I got tired of eating dal-bhat every night for dinner, but knew I was privileged to have toast and eggs for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch rather than rice and lentils twice a day. Yes, the rivers and roads were littered with trash, but I watched women sweeping the dirt entryways each day, keeping their homes tidy. Even with terrorism that was part of daily life, I encountered amazing, open-handed hospitality. It was an experience where nothing fit into any box, and I learned to embrace all those sides.

20140202-132411.jpg
On the last day of school.

On my last day of school, at the end of April, I watched my students running around and wondered what their future would be like. At the time, it seemed that Maoist presence would continue to disrupt life and education of these young people. I wondered what they would end up doing; if they would travel or go into tourism. As it turns out, the fighting subsided. This was before social media and I only kept track of one student: Prem. He graduated and is now leading tours of Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Trail.

I left Nepal with a desire to continue teaching. I returned to Colorado and settled into normal life, so thankful to fill a water glass at the sink without first having to use my backpacking pump to purify it. I’m not sure how much of a difference I made in the lives of my students in those short three months, but I know I came home with a broader worldview and sense of self. They gave me an insight into cultures so different from my own – from sanitation to home size to the daily reality of living with terrorism. They instilled in me a sense of empathy and connectivity that I’m not sure a simple vacation would have given me.

The best part of the trip? My roommate, Annie and I stayed in touch, ended up living a block from each other in Denver and traveling to Ecuador together. The past 10 years have given me an unexpected friendship, for which I am thankful.

What is an adventure that has shaped your life and worldview?