A Little Help from My Friends

January 6th

Arizona Center public art

I spent this weekend with an Iranian family who moved to Phoenix three years ago. Their high school-aged daughter is enrolled in a program at the nonprofit I work with; I was assigned as her mentor several months ago. The objective of the program is to see refugee high school students through graduation and into community college. The idea is with a bit of help from a community member, these students will thrive in their new educational environment and culture.

When R and I first met, I was struck by her innocence. She is 21 and has been in an Phoenix high school for two years — the state policy is students can remain in high school until age 22. These two years have been anything but easy. She came to the United States with a high school diploma from Tehran, but with no English. Her time at the high school was intended to give her a free chance to learn the language and a bit about her new culture.

When I studied abroad my sophomore year in Mexico, I remember the sheer terror of the first few months of high school. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish (okay, maybe a word. But I’m pretty sure burrito and guacamole weren’t going to see me through geometry). I would sit in the back of the class, write down every note from the blackboard and make sure I had the homework assignment written correctly. Then, I would head home and with an old paperback Spanish/English dictionary, translate each and every word and start the homework. I often didn’t finish all of the assignments after hours of work. I was blessed with a host sister who was also a high school student (although a couple years older and way too cool to hang with the annoying American in public unless forced by her parents. Lucky for me, she was regularly forced). Ale would carefully and patiently correct my homework and help me learn as much vocabulary as I could cram in my head. Thank goodness the Internet wasn’t an option at this point. We were forced to bond and I was pushed to learn in every waking second from human interaction rather than websites or chat rooms. After a few months, I was dreaming in Spanish. Soon enough, the language arrived like a much needed new best friend and life greatly improved.

Taken at the Arizona Center in Phoenix

R, on the other hand, has spent two years in the back of classrooms trying to learn a language that doesn’t share a common alphabet. Additionally, she’s the extra kid. The new kid. The weird kid. The foreign kid. The kid who doesn’t speak English or know how to socialize. It isn’t surprising few people have reached out to her. Also, because of her culture, it is very strange to be with boys in an educational setting and she is completely confused how to even speak to them. (Ah, high school. Some things are universal.) To make matters a bit more complicated, her parents are elderly and have no interest in learning English. They are retired and are very happy speaking Farsi at home. Her older brother, who also lives at home, does speak English well after working here for several years. However, again with the universality of life, hanging out with his little sister to help her learn a new language is not at the top of his priority list.

R is left with few friends and has latched on to her teachers. She craves the chance to speak English and through her timidity, she often will spend extra time in the classroom to speak with these adults. Our time together has been comical and fascinating. It took a bit for her to warm up, but she hasn’t stopped asking questions since. About English, our culture, how to interact with her peers at school, what should she study in college, and can we go out for Indian food? She really wants to try Indian food.

I took her for Mexican first — burritos trump curry. And tried my best to attempt to answer her questions, although I most certainly did not push her in any direction educationally. She’s currently bouncing between studying to be a pharmacist or engineer. Either would be pretty darn amazing. Just the thought that she’s considering these careers makes me beam. This is the essence of the American dream. An immigrant who arrives with little more than enthusiasm and motivation and will find great success. Paired with community support, she and 20 other refugee high school students in Phoenix, will see graduation this year.

As her mother went out into their garden to pick vegetables for our lunch, and her father tilled the small plot of earth they had — no doubt dreaming of the land they’d left in Iran — I smiled. These folks lived in a rural village for decades before being forced to flee and recreate what they could of a life in urban Phoenix — on the other side of the world. They’d turned their desert backyard into a fertile, lush garden that would make any botanist take note. Their tenacity is unbelievable.

Again, I find myself bonding with incredible people, thankful for the diverse opportunities life has presented. I’m pretty sure this family is mentoring me too.


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20 Responses

  1. Tina in Duluth January 6, 2009

    I decided today that you should write a memoir or two. Actually, I just learned what a memoir IS today from a Reader’s Digest article, lol. Maybe you already have or maybe you plan to in the future? Blogs like this just whet the appetite.

  2. What an inspiration!

  3. I don’t know what to say. You continue to amaze me. Happy pre-Wednesday (?) Kelli! You truly are a wonderful and inspiring person–so young and you’ve done so much! Just know, there is more mentoring going on here than between you and these wonderful families. Thank you again. 🙂

  4. I agree with the previous comments. I started out reading your blog for your craftiness…but I find myselves crossing my fingers everyday that google reader tells me you have a new post for me to devour. You are an amazing woman and very inspiring. thank you.

  5. I always find very interesting and the truly way of enrichment to get to know people from different countries and cultures, and I envy you for the variety of experiences you can live. I think that girl is so lucky to have you by her side.

  6. You inspire me everyday to be a better human being. Thank you!

  7. That is fantastic.

    I’m in a simular situation. My next door neighbors are hispanic. The mom and dad have little interest in learning English,but the mom has picked up some. They have 4 children, older boy and girl and 2 younger. The older children are now totally fluent in Enlgish and translate for the mom.

    I speak enough spanish to communicate a little. Gloria and I talk when we meet up both filling in the gaps as we can. Somehow, between my poor spanish and little English we manage to get our points across. lol.

    I took her some Thai peppers from my garden this summer for her family. Later when I’d asked her how they were, so said they were good, but she didn’t handle hot peppers well on her stomach. Her husband on the other hand had no problems with them. I’m not sure what country they were from, I really should ask, but I know it’s not Mexico as she mentioned that the people from Mexico handled hot peppers better than she could. lol.

    I’m blessed with good neighbors here.

  8. That’s really awesome – I had a similar experience as you when I studied abroad in Spain. Even in college I craved some empathy and help from someone local to help me through. It’s great that you are able to be that person for R.

  9. Kelli,
    Your new friend has the best MENTOR EVER!
    She is lucky to have such a WONDERFUL PERSON in her life!

  10. It is so cool you are doing this! Please keep us updated. Have you read “Lipstick Jihad?” It’s a great book about an Iranian woman who grew up in American and is torn between her two cultures.

  11. Kelli, you are an amazing woman 🙂

  12. That is so cool. This made me think of my favorite teaching someone English story.

  13. Kelli, I’m glad to see I’m not the first/only to remark on your remarkableness. I’m glad you found each other as you will both be better people for it.

  14. Well written.Beautiful. I’m sure she and her family are benefitting greatly from your generosity. And, I see the education is mutual here. So awesome.

  15. More power to you, and to your young friend! I had the privilege of working in the home of an Iranian family (as a nurse) for over ten years, and it enriched my life immeasureably! It is awe-inspiring to see the edges of a culture that dates back to the dawn of history and before. It also serves to help me appreciate my own privileges and the ease with which doors have opened for me in life, in contrast to the hurdles many immigrants have had to overcome.

    There are large Iranian communities in California, and there is a smaller but active one here in the Seattle area…perhaps there is one in Phoenix as well?

  16. Wow, what an amazing gift…for each of you. Because you know…that’s how it works. You think you are giving something and end up getting. What a wonderful thing.

  17. Kelli, your craftiness, your kindness, your willingness to give and share is inspiring.

  18. These pictures speak volumes… I can relate to being the foreigner.

  19. Larissa Stretton January 8, 2009


    How lucky R is to have such a wonderful mentor in America. I’m glad she is getting one of the best examples of Americans in you. You are fantastic and I must admit, I’m a little bit envious of you having such an interesting opportunity….although you seem to have many and I am grateful that you share them with all of us. Being there for someone is truly a gift–to them and to you.

  20. Kelli,
    living far away and in a country so different from yours, I find you, as many have said, truly inspiring. I discovered your blog through your craftiness too, but was after struck by your human side. From my daily blog reading dose, yours is the last one I read (always), as a way of saving the best for last…
    My love too you from overseas,