Tutor/Student Pair Highlight: Risala and Beatrice

December 6th, 2017
Risala points to Darfur on map

Risala points to Darfur in South Sudan. She has come a long way.

“I am one of the survivors.”

That’s what Risala quietly says when asked where she is originally from. “I am from South Sudan, Darfur,” she says first. Normally, the “where” question is followed up with the question of what brought one of our ESL learners to the United States. But in this case, asking someone why they left Darfur in the late 2000’s seemed delicate.

Risala, however, is a strong presence. She fills in the question hanging in the air. “I am one of the survivors.” The heaviness with which her story in the US starts does not set the tone for the rest of it.

“Risala is the most proactive person I have ever met,” Beatrice, Risala’s ESL tutor, pronounces.

Risala arrived in the United States as a refugee in 2009. After managing to pick up spoken English in her church and the refugee center near her new home in Montgomery County, Risala was still struggling to learn to read and write basic letters and English words until she used that proactive quality to ask her local public library for help. She was directed to the Literacy Council of Montgomery County.

Beatrice and Risala were paired up by the Literacy Council four years ago. “I always said that when I retired, ‘I want to volunteer at the Literacy Council!’” Risala became Beatrice’s first student. “I used to do a lot of prep for our lessons, but now it comes more intuitively. I would review the lesson book every week, but now we talk about the news, even how to calculate the unit price versus the product price to get the best price.”

Risala adds, “I call her all the time, she helps me with everything!”

“She’ll call me for everyday things she needs help with that I didn’t even think about when I signed up to be a literacy tutor,” Beatrice explains, expressing how much her experience as Risala’s tutor has taught her not to take the “simple” stuff for granted. “One of those things is how to use a computer! And one time, the grocery store double-charged her. She called me because she couldn’t understand her bank statement,” says Beatrice. Risala was learning a whole new way of life.

Risala laughs at the memory, and throughout recounting Beatrice acting not just as Risala’s ESL tutor but also as her cultural liaison helping her adjust to life in America. She laughs about being jealous that her children never get confused about when to use “a” vs “an.” And she laughs at the irony that now, she, Risala, is the one helping her sister-in-law make phone calls in English while she stays with her.

As Beatrice says, “Risala is very resilient.”

Beatrice and Risala smile

Beatrice (left) and Risala (right)

Years ago, Risala escaped unimaginable horrors of war to cross into Egypt where she stayed in a refugee camp until she made it to the United States. Pregnant with a third child, she found a doctor to help her through her pregnancy and labor, but the doctor could not touch her until she signed a waiver she could not read without the assistance of a hard-to-find translator. She knew not even a letter of the English alphabet.

Now a mother of three, she volunteers in her youngest son’s second grade classroom, and has a job at a big department store, where she was initially hired as a seasonal employee during the Christmas season. It comes as no surprise that the store managers saw Risala as a hard and resilient worker. They asked her to stay on year-round, and Risala is now preparing for her second Christmas with the store.

Through all of this, though she is earnest in expressing how lost she felt when she could not communicate in America, Risala simply smiles humbly or laughs. She sighs, but she smiles. In fact, only one thing makes Risala’s eyes fill with tears, which is talking about her tutor, Beatrice.

“We have become like best friends, not student and teacher,” she says, the most emphatic sentence she utters over the course of an hour. Emotion fills her voice. There is no shortage of gratitude evident in Risala’s face as she wipes her eyes while Beatrice takes her hand to squeeze it.

Thinking ahead to the next chapter of her story, in which she is the one training new seasonal employees on the job, Risala notes, “I know all the words to all the songs. Every Christmas song,” she says. And one more time, she laughs.

This tutor/student pair highlight on ESL learner Risala and her tutor Beatrice reflects how much more LCMC’s tutoring program does than teaching English literacy. Our tutoring program creates friendships and bonds, builds community, and provides us as a community with the full participation of our inspiring neighbors like Risala. Please consider giving the gift of education, friendship, community, and inspiration this holiday season by donating here to help write the next chapters of our learners’ stories.