It’s Friday night and I leave for Pre-Departure Orientation (PDO) on Monday. This past week has been incredibly busy. In addition to cramming last minute Arabic vocabulary, choosing host family gifts, and packing my luggage, I was lucky to spend this week doing one of my favorite things: volunteering with refugees.
Every summer, Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) runs an intense, seven-week ESL camp for refugee children, called iLEARN. While I volunteered weekly as a Youth ESL Tutor with iACT during the school year, this was my first time participating in the summer camp. What immediately struck me as astounding was the diversity. There were children from Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Congo, just to name a few, some of whom had been in the US for many years, while others had arrived just weeks ago. There were children who were completely fluent in the English language, and yet others who struggled with the alphabet. From five year olds to eighteen year olds, the camp was filled with nearly a hundred enthusiastic learners, each of whom brought a different perspective to the table.
One of the things that I enjoyed the most were my brief attempts to use some of the foreign languages I know, or am learning. While my Arabic knowledge is limited to phrases such as, “I am learning Arabic but my Arabic is not good”, and general introduction phrases, it felt good to be able to ask a child about his/her name, age, or origin. One very interesting language experience I had was with my own native language, Hindi. As it turns out, a few of the Afghan refugee kids who showed up could speak or understand Hindi (or Urdu). On the first day of camp, I worked with three Afghan sisters on an assignment, and was able to translate and explain things to them. Aside from family vacations to México, I had never really served as an actual translator for anyone before. In this situation, it was nice to think that my language skills were coming in handy to help another person. It is that experience that really makes me look forward to my summer abroad in Jordan; while I can’t expect my Arabic to be anything close to perfect when I come back, it’s nice to think that I will be able to initiate some meaningful conversations that extend beyond introductions and such.
In addition to the experiences I had with the refugee kids, I also valued the opportunity to volunteer alongside some really like-minded people. In fact, three of the people I met there were pursuing or had pursued Arabic in UT’s Arabic Flagship Program (AFP), which is my dream program for college. One of them was a camp intern, who had graduated from (AFP) and was highly proficient in Arabic. Another, who was a senior in UT, had actually done a NSLI-Y gap year in Oman, which I wanted to know all about. The third, who was an incoming freshman, had also done a gap year, in which she traveled across the world and spent several months volunteering with refugees in Greece. The girls, especially the latter two, gave me a lot of insight about college applications, AFP, and taking gap years. It was so nice to connect with people who cared passionately about a common cause, and whose interests so closely mirrored mine.
As well as volunteering at iLEARN, a few days ago, I received some amazing news: my host family in Jordan!! Our program has an odd number of girls, which means that all but one of the girls are paired with another NSLI-Y student in their host family. When I found out that I would be the one without a NSLI-Y roommate, I will admit I was nervous at first. However, I was able to contact the alum who had the same family last year, and she assured me that I would have a great experience. On reflection, I am really excited to have the entire family to myself; it means that I won’t have much of an excuse to speak English around the house, which is a much welcome challenge! 🙂 Also, my four younger host siblings will definitely be good conversations partners. (Well, minus the fourth one, who is only a few months old.) I had a really great time picking out gifts for the kids, and I can’t wait to meet my family!
The next six weeks will be packed with discovery, learning, and adventure, and I look forward to pouring out my experiences in this blog. For now, I am finishing up my preparation and enjoying my last few days at home, before I leave for this life-changing journey.