SECOND in a series about working with refugees. Here, the challenge of assimilating someone who looks very different.
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IN MAY, MINA CAME. She was the first to come completely covered, nothing but her eyes showing.
I am used to the women with headscarves. About 1/3 of them have their heads covered – the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Somalis. A few are covered all the way to their toes – some in black, some in colors. But Mina is the first to have a face veil.
Mina comes and right away I like her. Maybe it’s the way she extends her hand to me, which is unusual. Normally, I initiate the greeting and the new student is shy and unsure. Maybe it’s her smile. Her face is covered, but her eyes are smiling and there’s a warmth there. Whatever it is, right there, in that first moment, there is something about her I like.
But she’s a curiosity, for sure. Later, two Latinas sitting to my right discuss Mina’s garb in hushed tones.
The younger one inquires.
The older one explains.
“No, it’s to not attract the husband of another woman, I think.”
This same conversation may be happening around the room various languages, I don’t know. My ear only catches the Spanish.
I wonder how this will all go, having her in the class. We are all on a journey together.
Mina and her family come from Sri Lanka by way of Malaysia, then somewhere else, then the Bahamas, which they thought was their last stop before Canada, but an agent absconded with their money and they ended up being sent to Ecuador, where they spent two years before coming here, not Canada.
Along the way, she picked up several languages and lost a child. When I communicated this last bit to the other students, there was an audible moan of sympathy.
Loss of a child is universally understood. No language barriers for this type of grief.
Her English is passable, even good. Her learning skills, superior. She takes notes. She sees connections between words. She recognizes similar constructions. When we, as a group, go for a walk & talk through the neighborhood, she asks more questions than all the others combined.
But here’s what made the BIGGEST IMPRESSION on me:
That first day, she arrives in the middle of a lesson about clothing. Toward the end of class, we take turns standing and telling the class what articles of clothing we are wearing. When it’s Mina’s turn, she stands without hesitation and tells us about all her layers, head to toe, including the overdress (which she only wears when leaving the house) and the face veil (which she only wears when a man who is not a family member is around).
First day in class, she’s addressing the elephant in the room. Golly, I loved that!
She knows she’s a curiosity and a stigmatized one at that. She’s more aware of it than we are. But she has taken hold of that truth and made choices of how to deal with it – by taking initiative, extending her hand to the world to greet, facing head-on the objects of concern, sharing her joys and griefs, and allowing us to know her as a person and see her as other than just a stereotype.
Mina, the most-covered in the class, is not in hiding.
Did I mention I love that?