When Safiah first came to the United States, she depended almost entirely on her husband to interpret the strange and confusing language and culture so alien from the Yemeni village where she grew up. Since then, she has come to trust another reliable source of information and assistance, where she feels as much at home as in her own apartment: Tacoma Community House. “I have good people here. They’re like my family,” said Safiah, who credits her growing English skills and self confidence in part to the patience, generosity and compassion of her TCH teachers.
With three youngsters still at home, and a husband who sometimes works overseas, it’s been hard for Safiah to commit to a regular class schedule. But for about a dozen years, she’s valued TCH as a fountainhead of knowledge and assistance, not only for herself, but for other Arabic speakers. “I bring all my friends here,” she said. In English and citizenship classes, she’s encountered students from all over the world: China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia, Mexico, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. “They accept all the people from all the places, from all different cultures,” Safiah said.
She cherishes the camaraderie of fellow language learners. Malapropisms and pronunciation mistakes are common. “I’m all the time making mistakes, but the teachers say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll get it right in the future.” She recalled one lesson when students suggested home remedies for a cold. Safiah offered tea and soap. The faces of classmates immediately turned quizzical. “Tea and what, Safiah?” the teacher asked. “Soap, soap. What? Do I say something wrong?” Safiah responded. “Soap is for the laundry,” said the teacher. “Oh,” said Safiah. Everybody laughed.
Now in advanced classes, Safiah would like to go on to earn a GED. “Until now, I’m not good for speaking English, but I try.” In her case, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that she has had almost no formal education. As a child, she was taught to write her name and read Arabic, but little more. Instead, she was prepared for marriage. The mother of five adult children, Safiah was a divorcee when her husband returned to his native country to find a wife about 15 years ago. Before the marriage, they were not permitted to meet. Safiah could only sneak a peek at her future husband from afar. But when she recalls what went through her head at the time, her eyes light up. “He’s an American,” she said to herself. “This will change my life forever.”
Fortunately, the marriage has been a success, and she credits her husband, Moses, a merchant marine seaman, with easing the transition to American culture. And with help from TCH, she’s become a citizen and learned enough English to get a driver’s license. She’s also made new friends. One is a pharmacist from Russia. “I’d love to be able to say, ‘Good morning,’ in Russian,” Safiah said. “But it’s too hard.”
Special thanks to Susan Gordon, former News Tribune writer and one of TCH’s fabulous volunteers, who wrote this article.