Sunday, July 2, 2017


"What do you want to be when you grow up? I asked Abdo, while standing next to him as we prepared food boxes.

He looked confused, then blurted out with a smile, "I want to learn English."

The gauntlet had been thrown.  My time next to Abdo, which had been sometimes twice a day was about to take on a greater purpose. Those hours at the table were about to become the perfect classroom. I was going to help this sweet boy in his quest.

He spoke Arabic and I'd learned he was from Damascus. The puzzling part about Abdo was that he wore braces. Where, I wondered, does a refugee get braces? 

Jennifer, an American Lebanese young woman who spoke Arabic told me, "His father is a dentist, and he's very shy about learning English."

So I took the lead teaching Abdo. If I had a knife to cut the seal on the yogurt containers, I'd hold it up and say, "The knife is above the table." I would move the knife under the table and say, "The knife is _________  the table." I could see Abdo's mind looking for the word; it reminded me of the way a calculator's numbers blink when it is calculating a multi-digit number.

"Under the table!" he blurted out.

"Damascus is a what in Syria?"


I would then explain that a village is "small," and a city is "big. "

"Kara Tepe is a village, Mytillini is what?"

"A city."

The next night I would ask, "Damascus is a ?"

He looked for that word that seemed to dodge him. Finally with a smile, "A city."

One night I worked him too hard. When I asked him if he wanted to learn one more thing, he showed his proficiency, "Tomorrow."


The next night he was ready to practice again.

With just a few nights left at Kara Tepe, I worried about Abdo. How was he going to keep learning? How could I help? The next morning I awoke with a plan: e-pals. As a little girl in elementary school, I'd had a pen pal. If Abdo had an e-pal, his English proficiency would have to improve, and certainly communication in the digital age had to be a breeze.

Jennifer explained to him in Arabic and asked if he was interested. He shook his head enthusiastically.

I signed up Deema and Sukar too, then tweeted to students and had three who were interested. Maybe this would work. Not only would we help students become more proficient in reading and writinge English, we'd be bringing together people of different cultures.

So far, we've had whatsapp number mix-ups, and Abdo has read his messages but hasn't responded. I still have hope. Hope for Abdo and that more students will connect.

For me, the most fascinating thing about the e-pal idea is that the answer came in the night; as I slept, my mind rifled through ways to help Abdo further his English studies. My conscious mind was allowed the rest it needed, and the second shift, the sub conscious went to work. When I'm home, I think of this as inspiration, but since I'm in Greece, the birthplace of mythology and the nine muses,  the credit shall go to my own muse, or at least to one of the nine, preferably Kalliope, the muse of eloquence...

This morning, I woke up knowing the next missing puzzle piece from my understanding of history: the history of the Ottoman Empire and specifically why did it break apart at the end of WWI? For that lovely inspiration, the credit goes to the muse of history--Kleio.

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