I used to be one of those people… You know, those suburban people who complain bitterly about the small-town feel of the Quad Cities. There’s nothing to do here, it’s a dead town. Boo hoo. I’m so bored.
Then I met some people who’ve actually lived in the area, and they very quickly corrected that notion. There’s a ton of stuff to do here–Rozz-Tox, various theatres putting on shows, local music. Then my problem became that I didn’t have the transportation to get anywhere. I still haven’t solved that problem, but I do want to talk about some volunteering I’ve done for my Sociology class on citizenship.
Did you know that the Rock Island and Moline have a pretty big refugee population? I didn’t. Then my Sociology professor gave us the option of volunteering at Casa Guanajato, an organization that contribute to the development of the Latino population of the Quad Cities, or Blackhawk College’s ESL program at the Church of Peace in Rock Island. I figured I’d leave Casa to the people who actually know Spanish, and decided to go with Blackhawk’s ESL program.
I’ve been volunteering there since week 2 of this term, and it’s been a wonderful experience. The women (the first man I saw at the program was there last Thursday) are mostly Burmese, though there is one Latino woman, one woman from the Middle East and three or four African women. Since I go in on Thursdays, I’m with the higher-level students, the ones who actually have some English. They’re working on things like reading prescription labels, expanding their vocabulary and writing short notes to people.
Every week, though, there’s some time set aside for reading. The teachers cart in books from the library (we’re talking Dr. Seuss and children’s books), which the refugees read silently. I usually sit with the ones who need the most help, and explain words and pronunciations to them when they ask me. I’ve had to come up with explanations for words like “both” and “trade” and “trick,” and phrases like “time passed.” It’s been pretty humbling to think about how difficult it would be to survive in the US without basic English.
Yet it’s incredible how much the women have improved in the two months that I’ve been volunteering. There are some who would barely speak when I got there. Now, they’re reading The Cat in the Hat like old pros. They’ve also become much more friendly since I started, and more comfortable asking me questions. At the beginning, I’d be sitting at their table while they chattered away in Burmese or Karen (that’s a language, not a name), pointing to different words in their books. Now, even if I’m working with one woman, they know they can interrupt to ask a question.
I’d really like to continue volunteering there next year, even after my class is done. I don’t know if that’ll be possible, because I will be taking four classes during the fall and winter and studying abroad in the spring. Also because the bus journey there and back takes about an hour. Currently, a girl in my class who volunteers at the same time as I do gives me a ride, and it’s an under-ten-minute drive. But I’ll figure it out. This Thursday will be my last day volunteering at the Church of Peace this year, and I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the refugees and the teachers.
Posted on May 6th, 2013 by Rukmini Girish
Filed under: Rukmini Girish