One of my daughters thought the two of us could spend time together helping at a local Refugee Center, but on our first scheduled workday she was 1000 miles away in Florida, so I had to go alone. I wasn’t familiar with the center’s location and I didn’t know anything about the group or anyone in it, but I needed to follow through with our commitment. Besides, I need to practice adventures of all kinds on my own. I’m getting too used to my comfort zone and that is the antithesis of who I am! Or of who I used to be anyway. Now, my MS has a way of becoming a roomy shelter for “I can’t”. “I can’t” cross that busy street alone (vertigo, falling, disorientation…), “I can’t” help because my vision is double today, “I can’t” go there because it’s too crowded, or dark, or different, or hot, or confusing.
This time, I didn’t take shelter in my MS and I agreed to help teach sewing lessons to refugees with the group Women Transcending Boundaries. On my first day, parking was a nightmare, but I found a spot in a tiny lot in an area known for its roughness. After figuring out how to get buzzed into the building (because the doors obviously needed to be locked during the day) and climbing a steep set of stairs, I met a few of the friendly women who were regular volunteers. This was going to be fun! Then the security guard came in to tell me that I was parked illegally. Down I went to search for another precious parking place—I drove around and around, walked back braving high winds and a chilly 15F, climbed those steep stairs again and hoped my asthma would not be triggered by the whole ordeal. (Yes, I am so out of shape.)
The students trickled in for the first half hour of class time, because they said that with non-Americans it’s common that a class starting time is thought of as a suggestion. Then the vocabulary lesson was given by an animated retired French teacher. The ten or so students were mainly from Burma, Bhutan and the Congo and most don’t speak a smidge of English–and I mean a smidge–so the lesson was quite an experience. The students listened and repeated the words and scribbled in their native hand, trying to copy the English words for needle, thread, scissors and the like. After that, we turned on the machines and started ‘driving’ lessons—sewing on paper–following the printed lines to get a feel for the rhythm of the machine. I helped a woman from Burma who seemed to be quite familiar with the art of sewing. Her lines were stitched accurately and when she finished with her last sheet, I said, “Very good! You get an A! A plus!!” and repeated it for emphasis (probably quite loudly since I’m not exactly quiet…) I was met with a confused look, no smile whatsoever. Shortly after that she showed me some papers from her backpack and I realized her name was “Aye”. That explained the confusion!
My other student was a man from Bhutan. There had never been a man in any of the classes or meetings before (because it’s a women’s group) and his presence irritated one of the regular helpers. But he was an enthusiastic vocabulary student and because he kept his head down at the right times, he stayed for the whole lesson. When we switched to sewing with thread, he kept racing the machine and tangling up bobbin after bobbin, but even that did not deter him one bit. I was smitten by his determination and his fabulous ability to think himself invisible when his nemesis came near.
Over the weeks that I showed up to help, I climbed snowbanks, fell off snowbanks, got a parking ticket, got slashed by sleet, slipped on ice, and got soaked feet from slush puddles, but compared to the hardships of the refugee world, what was that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
*Almost a year has passed since I’ve helped with this group. I was cleaning out my draft file and thought I’d post it anyway.