The bus vibrates with the rhythm and melody of the latest Bollywood songs. Twenty girls clap, dance, and sing along, speaking intermittently in Dari, Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic. The large American flag waving outside the window is my only reminder that we are indeed in the States.
Growing up, my parents told me many stories of their childhood in India. “We used to have so much fun when we went on field trips,” my mom would say. “Our overcrowded bus would thrum with the sound of teenagers singing at the top of their lungs and dancing.” It seemed strange to me– until I experienced it myself.
Interning at GirlForward’s ESL and empowerment summer camp for teenage refugee girls has given so many amazing experiences already– and it’s only been two weeks! Sure, I’m working nine to five daily, but it definitely doesn’t feel like work when you’re having fun!
I could spend this post talking about the details of camp (and I might do so at a later time), but today I want to focus on the bus. Every Friday, around 20 teenage girls from Afghanistan, Tanzania, Syria, and Pakistan, and their teachers (I’m one of them!), pile into an old, white school bus for the much awaited weekly field trip. Last week, we went to a local lake, while today was spent at a local theater for improv lessons followed by the Zilker Botanical Garden. As I have learnt, the bus rides are just as fun as the excursions themselves. Both this Friday and the last, I was whisked to the back of the bus by the Afghan, Syrian, and Pakistani girls for half an hour of intense music, dancing, and tons of laughter.
Most of my bus rides here in the US have been extremely uneventful, even stoic. To my right, a friend would be scrolling through Instagram, another would be sending streak messages on Snapchat, while I would be texting a few people on WhatsApp (classic Desi, I know). We would exchange a few conversations here and there, and maybe chat quietly.
My bus rides with GirlForward have been different. Very different. Girls take turns DJ-ing with the portable speakers, as Hindi songs blare loudly. With Afghani girls forming the overwhelming majority at camp, Bollywood is by far the most popular music genre. Usually, when I hear music in public places, I just smile and nod to the rhythm, because, to be honest, the last time I heard English music out of choice was in eighth grade, the year in which I was attempting desperately to “fit in” (i.e. conforming to societal standards). Here, however, I’m in my element. Every girl claps and sings along to the songs, even if they don’t really understand the words. From time to time, someone plays a really catchy Afghani song, and Suhaila and I play some Levantine dabke hits from her native Syria.
What strikes me the most is how comfortable I feel in this environment. Generally, I am a bit of a reserved person. Here, however, it’s impossible not to join in the loud singing, clapping, and screams. I mean, how can you stop yourself from dancing to “Jeno Noto” or singing along to “Kala Chashma”? It’s also so interesting to see how appreciative the girls are of music in languages that they don’t even understand. They sing, dance, and laugh without inhibitions, and have made me feel like a close friend, more than a teacher.
In terms of language, the bus is an incredible melange of Urdu, Pashto, Dari, Arabic, Swahili, and, of course, English. It’s crazy to say that I can to use my native language (Hindi/Urdu) at work, while practicing Arabic with native speakers! Oh and of course, I’ve been able to take in a fair amount of Farsi vocabulary as I try to decode conversations in Dari.
Loud music in Hindi. Impromptu dance parties. An array of foreign languages. Friends from across the world. These past two weeks have been filled with fun and excitement, and although I’m a teacher at Camp GirlForward, I feel like I’m learning so much about different cultures, not to mention all the amazing relationships I have been forming. I’m incredibly lucky to be spending eight hours of my day, five days a week, with these girls, and I can’t wait to see what the next weeks hold.
Also, enjoy a clip of us blasting “Swag se Swagat” in the bus: 😀