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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Accomplishment and a sense of relief

The idea was ambitious, for sure. A presentation at a large conference of English Language Acquisition professionals--more than 6,000 teachers, researchers, policy makers, grad students, community program managers, publishers, writers, software developers, UNHCR and IOM language and culture trainers...TESOL is the who's who of the ESL world.

Given the very large number of proposals submitted, the rigor of the adjudication process, and the somewhat off-the-wall nature of the proposal we were putting up for consideration, I could only come to one conclusion about the possibility of presenting: No way.

Way. The proposal was not only accepted, but scheduled as part of a well-promoted group of sessions in a new category of an experimental/experiential genre. Suddenly what looked so feasible on paper was striking me as impossibly ridiculous. Sigh. We have faced challenges before and met them head on, and we could certainly do it again, right? There was nothing on the line at all, really, just my professional reputation and credibility. Oh, that.

Here is how the session abstract appeared in the program book:

Stringing Together Benevolent Enterprise and Basic Skills for Refugee Women

When a group of refugee women and ESL volunteers collaborated on a crafts empowerment project, the context for English and math skills, critical thinking, and business basics came naturally. In this experiential session, presenters explain the project while participants bead and sell under the instruction of the refugee artisans.
Presenters: Sharon McCreary ; Anna Hebbert ; Susan Renick ; Jaime Koehler ; Haiffaa Ali ; Khadiga Ali ; Fatuma Ali

The logistics of getting ready for the session were enormous. Almost anything that could go wrong, certainly did. The end result wasn't quite what I had envisioned, but it was still nothing less than...wonderful.

First, kudos to Katrina Wert for stepping in at the last minute to help fill in some presenter gaps--and for sharing valuable insight she has about the pre-literate refugees she taught so competently and compassionately for the years we worked together. Katrina also assisted Susan with the formidable transportation duties and logistics. Getting the women there was a job in and of itself, but Susan and Katrina got everyone delivered safely and on time.

When it was time to start, the room was full. Haiffaa opened the session by explaining to everyone what we hoped to accomplish during the evening, some of the things the participants would be doing, and then she introduced all of us in our group. And she did it all in Arabic so the group could get a sense of what it must have been like for our BeadWomen when we had our first meetings and lessons.

After some project background and several PowerPoint slides, it was time for Haiffaa, Htee Ku Paw, Sharifo, Fatuma, and Khadiga to be the teachers. Each woman worked with a group and presented lessons in basic jewelry making technique--but each woman did this while speaking no English. It was time for the participants to get a feel for what it's like to learn something fairly complex without the benefit of common language. Htee Ku Paw is not a jewelry maker, so she gave a lesson in basic crochet.

After the crafting lessons, each of the refugee women had the opportunity to address the group and tell her own story or talk about her experience as a member of A Little Something. Haiffaa is a talented public speaker, and she almost brought the group to tears. Khadiga talked about how much she has enjoyed learning something new that she does just for herself. Htee Ku Paw's voice cracked when she said that although she has been weaving since she was eight years old, she never had money before. Being a part of A Little Something has given her a chance to help her family while preserving a treasured cultural art.

At the end of our two-hour session, something amazing happened--almost nobody left. It was after 8:00 p.m., yet most of the attendees stayed to talk to the women and to help us pack up our bajillion beads and the props we used in the presentation. This project seems to foster a sense of community for anyone who spends time with it.

Fatuma rode home with me, and although she's normally pretty quiet, she was nothing short of exuberant during the drive. She talked a lot, and repeatedly thanked me and thanked me for inviting her to be part of the presentation. I had never seen her so confident or happy.

The next morning, at 8:30, my phone rang. It was my boss, who was a conference co-chair. The managers had just finished a breakfast meeting. Apparently, our session was the talk of the meeting. At least two TESOL co-chairs attended our session--but we didn't know that. They were so impressed with the entire presentation, the women, the activities, they made it the topic of the two-hour breakfast meeting.

We should be proud and I realize that, but I was so stressed out by the many obstacles we faced up until the moment when we started, I can only feel relief that the session is over with. The pride I feel is for Fatuma, Haiffaa, Htee Ku Paw, Sharifo, and Khadiga. They brought everything they had to share with the people who attended our session, and they ended up giving more than 100 percent. I know that this job challenged them but they all put their anxieties aside and showed nothing but confidence, patience, and personal strength. I couldn't possibly be any prouder of them. Well done, ladies.

To see these pictures full size, just click on a photo and a new window will open. For best results, manually advance pictures--don't choose slide show.

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