Courage

For all the twenty plus years that I’ve been a “getaway” parent to students at the United World College of the American West – a two year international school drawing 16-19 year old students from nearly 80 countries to live and learn together – I’ve admired the courage of these young people. As much as many teens want to escape from parental supervision, it is still a major step to travel half way around the world, to live and study in a very different cultural environment.

I’m reminded of my own small venture into a similar unknown. I was sixteen, and had succeeded in finding and being accepted into an international summer work camp organized by the Mennonites. At the time I was living in Paris. The work camp was located in Vienna. My parents decided to make a vacation of driving me to the reunion point. They did not calculate travel time very well – or rather, they did not allow for my father’s insistence on frequent photography stops, as we made our way across France and into Switzerland.

When it became clear there was no way we could arrive in Vienna on time, my mother reluctantly agreed that I should take a train the rest of the way. My father coached me most thoroughly on how to say “I do not speak German, but I understand a little. Speak slowly please.” Trouble is, he taught me so well that my flawless pronunciation contradicted my statement, and the people I encountered generally responded with a flood of information, of which I was only able to glean that they thought I expressed myself very well indeed.

Despite the communication challenges, I made it from the railway station across Vienna to the church our group was to restore. In the end, we were moved out to the country to work on a farm/guest retreat – eighteen of us living over a chicken coup, cutting hay with hand scythes, bringing in firewood, installing a septic system, working very hard but also having a great time. We were from eight different countries, as disparate as Sweden and Turkey. I was the only American. Over the course of the summer we created evenings with a meal – improvised from our very limited diet of potatoes and tinned meat – and entertainment typical of our homes. I made sloppy joes from the tinned meat, and taught square dancing. Oh, and I appalled the Germans and the French by serving a desert of apple pie a la mode. Pie, yes OK. Ice cream, yes OK. But together? AAARRRRGGGGHHH.

For twenty years I’ve observed how variously the United World College (UWC) students do or do not adapt to the adventure they have undertaken. Most do surprisingly well. The most common pattern has been two students per year from a nation, so that there are four “country mates” at a time. Occasionally there will be a single student and not one every year. One of my early getaways was from Korea, the first to come here from that nation, and the only one for several years. She found it hard to adjust until she met a local family who had adopted a Korean baby. Spending time with them helped her feel more comfortable.

An Ethiopian getaway I had several years ago admitted that she was very nervous coming to the USA. She had heard enough stories about prejudice against blacks to fear for her safety off campus. It is my habit to research the food of the countries from which my getaways come. I’ve learned to cook Burmese, Senegalese, Korean, and Malay in addition to the more common Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Indian and Thai with which I’ve long been familiar. I was able to find teff flour in Albuquerque at an international food market, and the first time Bereket came to the house I tried my hand at making a traditional bread for her. It was less than a smashing success, but she later shared with the general college population that my effort stood out in her mind as a sign of welcome and an indication that her fears were unfounded.

Lately the number of Chinese students has risen substantially – there is a contingent from the mainland as well as from Hong Kong. They are even offering classes in Chinese to the local community this spring. The dynamics on campus are changing, as the size of different cultural groups shifts – but that is a topic for a different essay.

The students at UWC do have a framework of support, not just from country mates, but from the fact of being in a school program. How much more courage it takes to come to the US to escape intolerable living conditions in one’s home country. How much courage it takes to put oneself into a position of dependence on the kindness and support of strangers. How much courage it takes to not only travel half way around the world for one’s one survival, but to bring along the aspirations and dependency of one’s entire family. To live each day with the knowledge that the future of the next generation in one’s family depends on one’s effective exercise of wit and charm, to create a life in a land far from home.

My father was an immigrant to the US 85 years ago, as was my mother’s father twenty years before that. From the stories I heard as a child, I know it was not easy for either of them, but it seems that the environment into which they came was more hospitable than the one new arrivals and asylum seekers face now. At the turn of the 20th century, the US was truly a nation of immigrants, of refugees from famine, from pogroms, from oppressive regimes. I may be wrong, but I think our immigration laws were less punitive then – and the communities of immigrants created more of a home away from home for subsequent arrivals. My grandfather talked about families who knew of and expected his arrival. My father had a harder time – he developed spinal meningitis on the trip over, and was taken off the boat into hospital, not expected to live. He did survive, eventually found his way to upstate New York to work on a dairy farm, became an agricultural expert, and finally an employee of the government, and an economic officer in the diplomatic corps.

Now the process of making one’s way through the complexities of immigration status seems dependent on a good attorney – and the money to pay for one. Without papers one cannot easily work and earn money. Without money one cannot easily obtain papers. To knowingly put oneself in this Catch-22 situation, with the hope that a way can be found through the maze, takes an awesome amount of determination and courage. I am privileged to know several people who are finding their way through the thickets – a young woman from Burma, my former getaways from Senegal and Nigeria, my new friend from Cameroon. Their lives and their challenges remind me to be grateful for what my grandfather and my father achieved – and I am encouraged, as well, to do my part to “pay it forward” as a way of expressing my admiration for their courage. They believe their lives will be better as they become able to live and work here legally. I know this country will be better for their presence and participation among us.

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4 Responses to “Courage”

  1. Helvenston, Merritt Says:

    Niki: Love your writing. I’ll be in SD at the Town & County. Will you be there? Merritt

    Sent from my iPhone

    • chelawriter Says:

      As you may already realize, I’m not in SD – affected at home by seminar nonetheless and experiencing an amazing rate of change in my outer as well as inner life. Thanks for the appreciation!

  2. Sharon Vander MeerSharon Says:

    Very nice. Real people, real courage.

    • chelawriter Says:

      Thanks Sharon – and thanks for continuing to be interested in what I have to say. Have had a short story accepted for the upcoming issue of the HU Literary Magazine, so I’m keeping my writing career alive despite the 7 day a week pace of my new job.

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