by Susan Schneider
In my four years as a volunteer ESL teacher with the Adult Education and Literacy program at the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), I have always been in awe of my immigrant students who take on the risks of creating new lives in an unfamiliar culture. But these days, I admire my students more than ever as they face far graver challenges. My co-teacher, Joan Grant, and I teach a full class of Yemeni women. As everyone knows, Yemen was included on the list of seven majority-Muslim countries that were recently targeted by an executive order from the Trump administration. Repressive and discriminatory, the Muslim ban has sowed stress, fear, and confusion in our classroom and in the community.
But the community is showing its strength. On February 2, 2017, the AAFSC was invited to stand in opposition to the ban at a press conference with the Progressive Caucus of the NYC Council at City Hall in Manhattan. To our delight several women students volunteered to go, accompanied by staff. From the photos, you can see that the event was a resounding success. The Yemeni women stood with representatives of other immigrant groups, held signs, and listened to speeches from supporters. I was personally inspired by my students’ enthusiasm, energy and determination, especially “A,” a grandmother whose home in Yemen was bombed and who is currently separated from twelve members of her family. “I was excited to go to the press conference,” she said. “I’ve never done that before, but I don’t like how Muslims are being treated.”
So many families have been torn apart, and the stories are heartbreaking. Another woman in our class has applied for her husband in Yemen to join her here, but now with the ban, she has no idea when that might happen. And still another of our students has been waiting for three years for her son to emigrate to the U.S. Now, because of the ban, she says she may have to wait yet another year. The stories go on and on.
Even though the ban was subsequently blocked by the courts, as of this writing, we are still waiting for the “Muslim Ban 2.0” to be released. But in spite of this continuing crisis, our students work diligently. Our classroom, always a warm and welcoming oasis for language learning, has lately become a refuge in which students may express their worries and concerns about the government’s anti-immigrant stance. My co-teacher and I have actively encouraged discussion and the airing of questions, which we consider important to weave in with the learning experience. As one small way to help bolster self-esteem, we have added positive adjectives like “smart,” “brave,” and “strong” to vocabulary lists. To say that the women eagerly embraced these words is an understatement! As “A” put it so well, “It made me feel strong to go to City Hall. I’m glad I did it.”