It was not just another Monday. This Monday was special. I volunteered for an organization called Behind The Book to translate from Arabic to English for an eight year old boy from Syria. Disclaimer, I’m a busy mom and comedian so I rarely volunteer. In fact I always complain that I don’t get paid for housework, childcare, or comedy and I refuse to take on one more thing that does NOT pay. I only volunteered because I am obsessed with getting my kid to speak Arabic. As my friend Mariam says, I am held emotionally hostage to the task of transferring my language, and I’m failing. I wake up every day and tell myself that I will only speak to him in Arabic. I think about this all the time but all my thinking is in English!
So when I heard about this opportunity to use my native language with a kid my son’s age, I jumped on it. I took the subway from the Upper West Side to Harlem, about fifty blocks, and entered a different world. At the entrance of the public elementary school, I met Myra, a beautiful woman of Mexican origin who works for Behind the Book. She took me along with the author Jake Perez to the second grade classroom. She introduced us to our boy, Tarek, a skinny little man with brown hair and eyes the color of good olive oil. As soon as I met him, I understood why Myra launched a social media campaign to find him a translator. Before he uttered a word, I could tell he was curious and hungry to learn. I sat next to him on the floor, and we got to know each other. I was so happy to hear a kid answer me back in Arabic. As Jake read, I translated every word.
Jake’s book is about a little girl named Coco who learns how to make a treasured family recipe, flan. In the process, Coco also learns about her Cuban heritage. When I explained to Tarek that the reason Jake decided to write this book is because he wanted to learn more about his culture, he asked the simplest of questions and I didn’t have an answer. “Well, if he misses his culture, and there is NO war there, why doesn’t he just go back to his home in Cuba?” Then when Jake showed us on the map where Cuba is, Tarek noticed the proximity to the United States and he asked me: “Why doesn’t he establish a home there and go back and forth?” Such a grown up question from a kid. My own eight year old would never ask that.
I visited Tarek in his classroom four or five times. After every visit, he remained in my thoughts. I got to know some of the other kids. Out of twenty four kids, seven are refugees from Yemen, about a third. As a mom, I could not help but compare this school which is supposed to be an “underprivileged school” to my son’s school which is a “private public school”. Other than the fact that all the kids in Tarek’s classroom are brown and all the kids in my son’s school are white, there is no difference. This school might have lower test scores but in my opinion, it scores higher on love, immigrant hunger, and other things you can’t quantify. I immediately wanted to put my son with Tarek. I was envious that my own kid was not that curious and didn’t have the empathy and maturity that Tarek had. I insisted on meeting his mother. I gave him my number. She called the same day. She invited us to lunch.
Zidane and I went to Tarek’s house in Harlem one Sunday afternoon. They had a huge spread. A biryani type dish, a salad, and a specific roux type regional dish S-houq which I had never had before, followed by two types of dessert. I brought them some donuts from Dough and as soon as I saw her spread I felt silly and pretentious. I immediately remembered my childhood, how my mom’s distant cousins would come to visit from America. We would go all out and slaughter a lamb and they would bring us something silly like a tiny box of cookies from Trader Joe’s. The lamb would side eye the cookies on the dining table.
As soon as I met his mom and sister, I noticed their accents were unlike Tarek’s, they sounded like they were from Yemen. I asked: it may be that you guys are not from Syria? The sister moved Tarek in front of her, put her arms on his shoulders and asked him: “did you tell them we are Syrian?”. The cutest most mischievous smile gave his lie away. Apparently, while they were waiting in Yemen to get their entry documents to America, he had spent an entire school year watching a very popular Syrian show Bab El Hara. He perfected the accent. He was immediately worried that I would stop working with him. I reassured him by letting him know how amused I was. I thought to myself: this kid is really smart, at such an early age, he learned to take advantage of the oppression olympics. He realized that being Syrian got you way more attention than being Yemeni.
While we were there, an accident happened. Tarek was so excited that he fell and hurt his eye lid. Blood was gushing. It left a deep wound. I could see the bone. I knew the mother and sister did not speak any English. I quickly looked up an Urgent Care nearby. I naively thought they would take their insurance. That’s where I took my son when he hurt his eye in the same place last summer, so I figured it would be ok. I was wrong. When we got there and they saw their insurance, they promptly sent us to to the ER. It was such a long ordeal. I stayed as long as possible. Luckily, we found a nurse who spoke Arabic and so after that, I left her in charge.
Zidane and I got on the subway home from Harlem. He started complaining that it was the worst playdate ever. I patiently tried to explain to him that everything would have gone smoothly if the Urgent Care had accepted their insurance. Try explaining America’s healthcare system to an eight year old. My husband is an artist and Creative Director in advertising and so we are blessed to have great insurance. Tarek’s dad works for a grocery store seven days a week. Not only does Tarek barely see his dad, he has to go the Emergency room if he needs a doctor at odd hours. How do you teach kids that with their advantage comes a responsibility? There is no system in America to teach that. Community service here is something you have to do when you get in trouble with the law.
I got an idea to create an afterschool peer to peer homework and play space for new immigrants and first generation kids to integrate and learn from each other. Tarek and Zidane would not just learn languages from each other, they would get different perspectives.
This volunteer experience was not only extremely gratifying but it taught me a lot. I went back recently for Tarek’s publishing party and met some of the moms. One mom said to me: “I want to write my story”. I encouraged her to take a workshop, gave her my number and promised to take her to a Moth story slam. Behind The Book inspired not only the kids but the moms as well. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi , author of Americanah says “there is danger of the single story”. Behind The Book is inspiring kids to write their own multiple stories.
We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have Suzie Afridi as a volunteer in our classroom workshops, and are honored to have her guest blog about her experience!