Being a tutor for Literacy Together (by Martha, an ESOL tutor)

Reading the local paper, I learned that 88 Afghan refugees were being brought to Asheville for resettlement after they escaped from Kabul. Wow, I thought, why Asheville?

The article said a local not-for-profit sought volunteers to become tutors. “No expertise is needed,” Literacy Together promised they could train volunteers to become effective tutors.

I did not believe they could train me to be a good English tutor, but they did make that promise.

I often thought, “I wish there was something I could do,” but the situations I read about seemed too enormous or global for me to make any difference. But here was this request, right before me, where just one person could contribute. All my doubts and insecurities about competence stayed present, but I decided to sign up and see what happened.

At the start of the first tutor training session with Erin, she said by the end of the lesson, we would all be able to read and understand the page of German she presented. I was sure she must be talking to others, not me! 

As the training session progressed, I saw what a great teacher Erin was and how she made it all seem effortless, fun, and enjoyable. Finally, at session’s end, I could read that page in German. Suddenly, this seemed possible. The textbooks Erin provided for us contained the same excellent teaching tools.

Now trained and committed, I waited. Once the refugees arrived, Erin would test and assess skill level to determine which refugee to assign to which tutor. I got to pick from several options of times and places for tutoring.  

I had picked Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 pm to 2 pm. Within a few weeks, I found out I would be tutoring an 18 year old female student. She was arriving in Asheville with a sister, brother, and cousin who would all share a small home for the next six months provided by Catholic Charities.

I was slightly nervous my first time walking into a tiny room at AB Tech to meet my new student. Elaha sat before me, quiet, demure, with barely audible replies to anything I said. However, she already spoke and understood quite a bit of English, and when I asked her how she learned English, she said, “Watching movies on the internet.” “They have American movies in Afghanistan?” I asked incredulously. “No,” she patiently explained, “English subtitles to movies.” I was already impressed.  

Of course, she also knew Hindi, Dari, and Urdu. Fortunately for me, Erin had given me the most brilliant student! She told me that she wanted to be a neurosurgeon and was soon asking which was the best medical school. It seemed absurd that I was the tutor!

My first tutoring session with Elaha was on Dec. 18, 2021. In the coming days, I would meet her entire family. I never guessed how enriched my life would be by knowing them. I have learned, grown, and loved more than I could have imagined or foreseen. Wanting to give and contribute was the motivation for volunteering, yet it seems the gifts have all been mine.

I learned I could make a difference, and how invigorating it is to be inspired by this partnership with my student.

I learned about a new culture that ended up revealing much about my own culture.

I learned to be proud of my city, watching the caring, compassionate, and giving citizens respond to these new residents. I now know the answer to “Why Asheville?”

I learned how self-centered the independent ethos of America seemed compared to the community family ethos of Afghanistan people. I learned that once you are ‘adopted’ into an Afghan family, you are accepted, just as you are, and then taken care of.

I learned the difference between education as a privilege (to Elaha) and education as a thing to do (me). What a world of difference and quite different results! I learned how privileged my point of view is and the many things I take for granted.

I want to thank literacy together for all the good things they have done. They gave me the most valuable gift, my friend Martha. She is a gift of God and Literacy Together in my life, and I am very thankful to Erin, that matched Martha and me together. In this new journey of my life, Martha is like an angel who helps me and teaches me everything, not just English. I am very thankful. ~Elaha

This story was published in the Mountain Xpress!

The English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program teaches oral English, reading, and writing to adults who have immigrated to the U.S. from around the world. ESOL is the largest program at Literacy Together, serving approximately 250 students annually. Our students’ most common goals in learning English are to improve their employment prospects, help their children in school, and pass the U.S. Naturalization exam

Each student works with a trained volunteer tutor, either individually or in a small group of ten people. Tutoring takes place for two hours each week at times and locations that are mutually convenient for students and tutors. Tutors may choose to teach one (1) two-hour session or two (2) one-hour sessions each week and may do so online or in person. Sign up online to volunteer.

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