Teaching English

I’ve been in Cairo about a month now and I still haven’t written much about the students I teach. So here we go…

Our group of DukeEngagers works with Somali unaccompanied minors (youth aged 13-21 in Cairo without parents/guardians). These young men and women are in Cairo without their parents for a variety of reasons: their parents sent them away to be safer than they would be in Somali, they came here with their parents who have since passed away, they no longer have parents and came here on their own, etc. These young people all have recognized refugee status due to the terrible political situation in Somalia. I speculate that some of these students have fudged their ages in order to be accepted into our program and/or to remain eligible for the unaccompanied minor refugee stipend. The stipend is only 190LE, or about $36, per month. The unaccompanied minors in Egypt receive the stipend each month until the end of the year in which they turned 18 (or if they have an older sibling, until the end of the year that the older sibling turns 18).

When we came to Egypt, we were told that we would be teaching English to Somali unaccompanied minors who spoke no English nor any Arabic. We were slightly misinformed. Most of our students speak some English and some Arabic, and a few are even fluent in Arabic. There are a few students who spoke neither English or Arabic and were illiterate in the program. (Note the past tense in that sentence!) We have broken down our DukeEngage team of 10 people to work in small groups with the students. We have low student-teacher ratios of about 2 or 3 students per teacher.

I work with 3 students: 2 young men (aged 13 and 19) and 1 young lady (aged 16). The 3 of them have different strengths and weaknesses and work very well together.

The oldest, Mahmoud*, is probably the leader of the 3 students. He is very good about asking questions about what he doesn’t understand and trying to work through descriptions and explanations in English. Sometimes I feel like he talks for hours and I don’t quite understand what he’s saying, but it’s all in English and it all kind of makes sense. When Mahmoud* doesn’t understand something, you can pretty much bet that the other two are confused as well.

The girl, Samira*, is as sweet as can be. She speaks very clearly and is meticulous with her work. She’s also somewhat of a mother for our little group. When we cross the street to go to lunch, she almost always grabs my hand to guide me across the hectic sea of traffic. I know that when Samira* isn’t happy, everyone else isn’t happy either. Sometimes, when she thinks I don’t notice, she hides her cell phone under her hijab and answers phone calls. It’s so funny!

The youngest, Noor*, is a character. He is into American hip-hop culture and likes to wear baggy clothes. I think he has a hard time sometimes being so young and yet being essentially on his own. He’s quiet and yet tries to make his presence known. Sometimes I feel like he understands things more than he lets on. I want to pull him out of his shell a little more. He’s a great person with great potential who just needs the chance to be a kid for a little while longer.

Our days together at “school” last 4 hours from 10am to 2pm, Monday through Thursday. We have 1 hour of instruction in the morning, in which we generally review homework and I introduce the new topic of the day. Then we break for lunch for an hour. We provide a small free lunch there, which is the only meal that some of our students eat each day. At 12pm, we resume lessons and then break at 1pm for a quick 10 minute break. After that we tie up loose ends, assign homework, and then usually play a game based on whatever vocabulary/lesson we worked on that day. These games are usually something like charades, Simon says, Mad Libs, or whatever we make up on the spot. Every Thursday, my students have a quiz on whatever we studied that week. I try to keep the quizzes short (less than 30 minutes), but sometimes I miscalculate and they are longer.

Anyway, I think that’s about it about my work with the Somali students. I love working with them. It’s always funny to see their reactions to things that I teach them and some of the cultural nuances that I never thought about before and they pick up on. I know it’s cheesy, but I really feel like I’m learning more from them than they are from me. Not only am I learning about 3 people, Somalia, and Muslim culture (because Somalia is a very Muslim country); I’m learning about American culture and everything that I take for granted as normal.

(*Names changed.)