(Lead image photo credit: David Clode via unsplash)
It was one of those times of life when things were so busy. I was working on my undergraduate degree, dating, doing a work-study program with high-risk elementary age kids, heavily involved with the young single adult group in my church, volunteering at a children’s hospital… It was all fulfilling and life was great. Then, along came another opportunity that I almost passed up and am so glad I didn’t.
I was living in Salt Lake City, Utah where a large group of refugees were just placed. There was an organization that reached out to our single adult group and asked if we would be willing to take a few hours each week to teach English to the refugees. None of my close friends were either willing or able so I would have to be paired with someone I didn’t know. It was another thing to try and fit into my already busy schedule, but I just felt such a nudge to participate that I went ahead and put my name down.
Before I knew it, I met up with another girl and off we went to teach a small family. Their 16-year-old daughter was there and had already learned enough English for us to get by in the beginning, but soon she lost interest and was often not present. The father of the family was very eager to learn and put his whole heart into it. We would laugh together when he stumbled over pronunciations as his mouth learned to wrap around the words. He was such a good sport.
The sweet mother was a different story. She was painfully shy, and when it was her turn she would shake her head in embarrassment and refuse to even try. Some days she would cry and apologize. I wanted so badly to reassure her and encourage her in a way that made her feel safe to try, but I had no way to give her that message.
Once, they pulled out a DVD and showed us some footage of their refugee camp. They used their new words to help us understand more of what they left behind: cousin, uncle, work, home, mother, friend. In my young naivete I hadn’t considered them beyond the context that I saw them in that moment. They had fled and left so very much to come to such a foreign place. Not just in language, but in custom, in dress, in culture, in food, in everything. It was so humbling to understand more about their past and all they had endured and lost.
One day I had taught the lesson alone and was getting ready to leave, when the mother stalled me with a hand on my arm and gestured for me to follow her out the door. I did so as we walked away from the apartment complex and down the street. I started to wonder where she was taking me and if I should stop her to tell her I needed to leave. She just kept gesturing and I kept following. Soon, we arrived at a community garden. From all the produce I could see there, I could tell it was well cared for and thriving. There were lush tomato vines, massive squash plants, and the first time I had ever seen a broccoli bush!
She walked in and gestured to show me the part that was under her care. The sweet woman came alive in that garden. I was able to ask her if she had a garden back home and she nodded with a gleam in her eye. She then pulled some grocery sacks out of her pockets and began to fill them. I offered to help and she shook her head, but then handed the sacks to me. She gestured that they were mine to take home. With the first English words I’d heard her speak in the weeks I had been working with her, she said, “Thank you,” and handed me another sack of veggies. I teared up and considered the gift she was giving me. She was taking the one piece she felt belonged to her, the one connection she felt to her own home, and was sharing it with me. I hugged her tightly and we both brushed the tears away.
I will never forget the connection I felt in the garden that day. It was one that broke through traditions, languages, country borders and went straight to hearts. The only connection that really matters anyway.
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