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.
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.