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Finding Refuge in Giving

Teachings from Italy, Tunisia and Upstate New York

“I’m going to use you,” English teacher Mary Hall says to me 60 seconds after I am introduced to her as a Colgate University student and journalist. I sit across from her in a swivel chair, nervously tapping my right foot on the floor and periodically shifting in my seat. Behind us, three rows of light brown desks occupy the classroom, which appears to be about half the size of a basketball court. A long, rectangular chalkboard monopolizes three-quarters of the wall by the entrance. Above its wooden trim, neon construction paper has been cut and glittered into an alphabet parade. An American flag is draped on the back wall, its predictable red, white, and blue lines contrasting with the messy homemade jack-o-lanterns framing the door.

Yet the bodies seated behind the desks in Mary’s classroom are not those of tiny-framed children who doodle superheroes all through afternoon math classes. Come 8:30 a.m. every weekday, these desks fill with an array of Burmese, Afghani, Somali, Thai, Vietnamese, Russian, and Ecuadorian refugees between the ages of 18 and 25.

By 9:45 a.m., I am positioned at the front of the classroom, the uneasy subject of a language exercise.

“This is Alyssa — she is a stranger. Why is she a stranger? Because we have never met before,” Mary says to the class.

“What do you do with a stranger?” she continues. “You need to talk to them. You need to have a con-ver-sa-tion,” she says, carefully enunciating each syllable and sound. “Now, who wants to have a conversation with Alyssa?”

A dark-skinned man with chocolate brown hair approaches the front of the room, his clunky hiking boots squeaking with each stride on the linoleum floor.

“What is your name?” I ask, reorienting myself to face him.

“My name is Esar. What is your name?” he says with a goofy grin. His eyes are bold and brown, the immediate focal point of any glance in his direction. He is dressed in a light blue jeans jacket, an article blatantly designed in the `80s. The combination of his ensemble and persistent smile calmed my nerves.

“My name is Alyssa. Nice to meet you.” As I speak, I raise my right hand and extend it forward. Esar quickly catches on, offering his hand in return.

“Stop,” Mary says, freezing Esar and me mid-handshake. “This is a great example of how to talk with someone you have just met.”

Mary’s explanation continues for nearly a minute before whispers and laughter interrupt us. These softly spoken jokes are told in Burmese — Esar’s native language — making them undecipherable to Mary, me, and nearly half the class. I look to Mary, standing to Esar’s right, furrowing her eyebrows with curiosity. She peers at a strip of suspicious faces in the row where Esar was originally sitting. The laughter amplifies from this region. Finally, a student murmurs an explanation to Mary in English.

She smiles, nodding towards the middle of the room.

“Oh, Alyssa! This is Esar’s wife.”

I make eye contact with a woman seated in the second row; she actively avoids my gaze. I look down only to see that Esar’s hand and my own are still firmly locked in a handshake — an awkward gesture that sparked laughter. Within seconds, I am hunched over with my hands on my knees, gasping for air and rubbing my cheeks, sore from laughing so hard.

Rudyard Kipling once said, "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." A certain degree of pleasure goes along with finding a rarely used action verb, a new slang term for hello, or the perfect phrase for the way leaves paint the trees in October. Without words, human interaction would be meaningless. As Kipling asserted, language is an addictive drug on its better days. In both written and spoken form, words flow together in soothing and sharp strings of notes. Still, the English language is unbearably complex in its irregularities. Colgate Writing Center Director Jennifer Lutman explains, “Language comes from people making it up.” English draws on many sources, and its incorrect usage has become accepted as the norm over time. This process is what she calls “morphology.” English can be a gruesome struggle for new learners to comprehend. The lives of Utica immigrants and refugees are defined by this labor to learn a beautiful yet challenging form of self-expression.

The setting of these efforts is The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, located in a large brick building in Utica, New York. Immediately through the double door, the center’s interior gushes with colors: red, black, and blue flags, yellow fliers, neon clothing, and different shades of black, brown, and white skin. A piece of printer paper tacked to a bulletin board in the lobby reads, “Many Cultures, One Community.” Directly ahead, the front desk buzzes with conversation. This wooden fixture seems to be the hub for employee gossip and refugee queries. In the long, narrow hallway behind the desk, nearly twenty flags — from Bosnia, Somalia, and others — dangle from the ceiling, shifting and swerving as surges of air creep inside the entrance.

Yet Utica is not the only refuge for these men and women. In a sense, English itself is a language of refuge. Its speakers come from all ethnicities, races, and religions. Their eyes are blue, brown, hazel, and green. Their hair is brown, blonde, black, grey, and red. Their skin is a variety of shades, and they are a variety of heights and shapes. Refugees also have diverse, irreplaceable histories. Many seek to rewrite these memories with each new vocabulary term. “Learn a new language and get a new soul,” says one Czech proverb. Learning English is, for many, a chance to erase past realities — demolished homes, disappeared families and burned memorabilia. A language can be a sanctuary, linking humankind through storytelling. Refugees can share their English narratives with migrants, parents, siblings, teachers, caseworkers, judges, and even — in my case — complete strangers.


The journey that led me to The Mohawk Valley Refugee Center began long before, in one of Tunisia’s many medinas — infectious outdoor markets where vendors sell saffron, silk scarves, and poorly welded jewelry that will later infect one’s ears.

“10 dinar, but for you, only five,” a Tunisian man tells me as I stroll by him on the streets of Hammamet. He is standing behind a table overflowing with spices and ceramic plates. The intricate designs seem to dance off the surface like steam from an explosive teakettle. I am hesitant, but I look around, utilizing the little Italian I know to converse with him.

In the medina, I am reminded of my current hometown, Rome, where illicit street vending is commonplace. My friends and I often were frequently hassled by the men (never women!) who sell sunglasses and purses by the Vatican or Trevi Fountain. Some days, I felt embarrassed by my peers’ harsh reactions, often curtly yelling, “No grazie!” or sometimes, Italian curse words. On other days, I sympathized with them. After all, I was trying to enjoy my time without being hassled to buy more souvenirs I did not want or need.

Then, two things happened: I started paying attention and met Akram Elataar.

That semester, I was enrolled in “Human Rights: the View from Rome” — a course co-taught by a wonderful Jesuit priest and the director of my study abroad program. The coursework was fascinating: how the Roma gypsies are treated in Europe, the harsh Italian immigration laws, and the culture of street begging. Suddenly, I did not see men selling by the Vatican; instead, I saw an entire voiceless population.

I began to piece together what I already knew but had turned away from accepting. Those men were selling because they had no other choice, no other means to make a living. Many of them were illegal immigrants who had traveled through Eastern Europe or Northern Africa just to escape violence and unrest. I was a Peace and Conflict Studies major, a writer, and a humanist. While I could not understand why someone would want me to buy an ugly Gucci bag, I could certainly understand this. This, I was moved by. I began opening my eyes, being far more conscious of how I treated vendors, beggars, and, in reality, everyone.

I was introduced to Akram Elataar at a luncheon in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. At the time, he studied law at Faculte Des Sciences Juridiques Tunis. That evening, Akram took me and four other American students to a shisha bar. There, exhaling tropical smoke, we talked freely about gender and politics.

“Tunisians hate Americans,” Akram confessed to us. “They associate all Americans with George Bush, with the government, with the way you mistreat the entire Arab world.”

It was an arrow to the heart: I, an innocent, progressive college student, was getting lumped in with policies I did not even agree with?

But were not my own assumptions just as bad?

I pictured Akram in the medina selling saffron. What if he could not have afforded law school? What if things in Tunisia were not so stable? What if President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — a leader widely known for his censorship — took more drastic measures to limit opposition? What if these actions forced Akram to leave the country — to flee for Italy? He would arrive with nothing. And so, he would sell. My new friend was very fortunate — many others I have encountered and often brushed away on the streets are not.


I returned to the States with new eyes, capitalizing on my final journalism assignment as a chance to volunteer at the refugee center.

“Help her, she’s from Afghanistan,” Mary says to me, motioning towards Maryam Razai. Maryam spends her free time cooking and cleaning, with little time to relax before quickly falling asleep. Perhaps this is because she walks 30 minutes every morning and afternoon to and from the center. I imagine this tall, slender 55-year-old Afghani woman trekking through Utica in her Sari and sandals in a bone-chilling February. For a moment, I wish I could pick her up in my white Toyota Camry each morning, eliminating this walk from her routine. Maryam squints at her worksheet, and I wonder how well her eyes are fairing.

“You have to introduce them!” Mary says a few minutes later.

When we finally meet, I assess our juxtaposition. We both study English. We both live in New York. We are both 21-years-old. We are both females. Yet Su Mya Ed was born in Burma, and I was born in Massachusetts. Su is wearing sandals and white socks, and I am wearing black flip-flops. Su is wearing a black head covering, and I am wearing a plaid headband. Su has been married since she was 18; I am just looking for a date. Su met her husband in a refugee camp and married after one year. Her husband, Ro Ke Yar, corrects her: “4 weeks! 4 weeks before married.” She continues to deny this accusation. He pulls out a white lace head covering, similar to a Jewish yarmulke, which he wore on their wedding day. Su and Ro practice Islam; I do not practice much religion. Su and Ro came to the U.S. three months ago. They walk 15 minutes to school every day; so do I. Mary positions Su and I across from each other so that our features almost line up — mine an inch or two higher than hers. Su’s father, Esar My, came to the U.S. in August 2007. He is 44-years-old. He is married and has five children, all of them girls. He is a great conversationalist.


These threads — Rome, Tunisia, Human Rights class, Mohawk Valley — also came together in my senior thesis, which examined non-state actors and black market economies in post-conflict Bosnia and Colombia — a phenomenon that Carolyn Nordstrom calls “shadow networks.”

Merriam-Webster defines “legitimate” as “conforming to recognized principles or accepted rules and standards.” The culture of heckling, in fact, does just this. As new immigrants enter a city like Rome, they form social networks with other migrants, conforming to the collectively accepted lifestyle and participating in these “illicit” sales. In this sense, the lines between legitimacy and illegitimacy, illicit and legal, have become obsolete as these networks have become essential to conflict and post-conflict zones.

As Nordstrom points out, “Neither the stories nor ethnographies of the twenty-first century are bound to single locales: what patterns ripple across cultural landscapes, sovereign borders, and theoretical domains?” Shadow networks are transnational, cross-cultural, and intricate webs that necessitate a commitment to curiosity, objectivity, and compassion before they can be comprehended. As an individual, writer, and traveler deeply concerned with the human condition across the globe, I hope to remember this: we must give away as much as we can — our time, our knowledge, our resources — for there are many individuals whose only refuge is to sell.

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