Carina Ramos has been tutoring an Eritrean refugee since July, 2010. Here, she reflects on the experience so far.
by Carina Ramos
I will never forget the first time I ever walked into my student’s apartment, four months ago. A young, Eritrean mother of four, Gidey greeted us warmly with one of the few phrases she knew in English: “Hello, how are you?” The distinct smell of coffee beans being roasted right there in her living room struck me sharply—and not in your typical ‘Starbucks’ aromatic way, for sure…
The humble apartment was sparsely furnished and Gidey offered us two chairs at the kitchen table—and, after she rushed around trying to tidy up the apartment a bit—she sat down with us to complete the initial questionnaire. Through her eight-year-old daughter, who had already been in school for nine months and knew the most English in the house, we were able to communicate our questions to her and obtain answers.
After Sharon, the coordinator left, I stayed there longer to drink “boona”— Ethiopian coffee—with her and get to know her better. Other Eritrean neighbors and cousins came in and, since most were more fluent in English than her, acted as translators too, telling me more about her life in Eritrea as a farmer, her complete lack of formal schooling, and her excitement at the possibility of receiving English classes at her home.
I started meeting with Gidey two evenings a week, and despite frequent interruptions by her older daughter, toddler, and baby, we started scratching the surface of the English language by learning basic phrases, such as “Hello, my name is…”. Since she was completely illiterate in both Tigrinya and English, all of our classes were oral at first.
After a couple of sessions, Gidey told me, through her daughter, that she wanted to learn the “ABC,” so we began working on saying and recognizing the alphabet visually, as well as writing it. We worked with textbooks, workbooks, notebooks, and white boards—practicing over and over again. I bought her a colorful alphabet chart, which we stuck to her kitchen wall and referred to often. It ended up being a great hit both with her, her children, and the neighbors, and was the source of everyone’s admiration. After more than two months, we started working on writing out her name, and she copied it over and over again in her notebook, trying to memorize it. I tried to put myself in her place, and imagined trying to write my name in Tigrinya, a language with strange characters, completely foreign to me. How long would it take me to recognize it when I read it, and learnt to write it?
At the end of one of these sessions, I turned over to a clean page of her notebook, and told her to write her name, without any reference to copy from. I waited anxiously to see how she would do… and watched her slowly trace the letters, one by one, perfectly! One of her Eritrean friends was sitting on the couch across the room, watching, and we all cheered and clapped as she finished writing the last letter. She smiled proudly as she examined her work. Then, she wrote it a few more times across the page, so as to cement it into her memory. What a sense of accomplishment! It was as great as writing a thousand-word essay—the feeling of crossing a hurdle initially as tall as Ras Dashen, the tallest mountain in Ethiopia. What an achievement!
In her next class, Gidey copied all of her children’s names down and practiced them in her notebook. It looked so neat and clear that I cut out the pages and stuck them on her refrigerator, while she beamed with happiness. Her handiwork was on display for her to admire every day.
We have been moving on to food names, numbers, and other basic vocabulary—all with the goal of helping her become increasingly independent when she goes to the supermarket, to her child’s school, and to complete basic government paperwork. I look forward to helping her cross many more hurdles—though the progress may at times be slow—because her contagious enthusiasm carries us forward each session. And of course, no class is complete without a cup of home-roasted, ground, and brewed Ethiopian ‘boona’ at the end to celebrate all of our hard work.