“I is an other” -Arthur Rimbaud
Astoria, Queens has recently developed into one of the largest Egyptian immigrant communities in New York City, hence the geographical title “Little Egypt”–one of the many affectionate nicknames ascribed to the neighborhood located at the end of the N and Q subway lines. As a small non-profit headquartered in this international hub, the Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans (CIANA) services the members of this neighborhood, effectively bridging a gap between the presiding urban culture and the various ethnic traditions of new immigrants. CIANA offers a variety of services that provide immigrants assistance in navigating the obstacles they encounter on a daily basis. One of more important programs at CIANA allows attorneys to volunteer their time to handle the legal complications that arise in the process towards citizenship. Many of the families that use CIANA’s services only speak Arabic and therefore, the citizenship process often seems daunting and unmanageable. This is why many residents of the neighborhood choose not to seek help.
Women and their children are the primary users of these services, as most of their husbands usually work long hours as the sole breadwinners of the house. While these women often face discouraging linguistic and cultural boundaries that inevitably lead to intentional seclusion within the home, CIANA acts as a gateway between these two worlds. Most of our volunteers are bilingual, offering ESL assistance in a plethora of languages such as Spanish, Creole, French, Urdu, Bengali, Hindi and Arabic. This affords our recipients an opportunity to speak and be taught in their own language, while still exposing them to the English language and American culture in general. To facilitate this obvious divide in language abilities, I make announcements in Arabic and then repeat my statement again in English.
As a tutor I volunteer for one of CIANA’s largest services which offers reading, writing, and math help for young immigrants. Most of the time I assist my students with their homework–a task their parents are unable to help them with. As a frequent volunteer, I have come to know my students Bashur and Felo quite well. Felo, age ten, and Bashur, age seven, recently immigrated from Egypt and come to our organization to receive help in school. These are clearly intelligent children and yet, they still seem to struggle in school. This is not an anomaly within the New York public school system, but immigrant children face obstacles unique to cultural assimilation and success in their host country. For example, English is often not spoken in the household and the only exposure to the language that these children receive comes from time spent in school. Although familiar with the English language, much of the subtleties embedded in colloquial English are lost when left unpracticed.
Felo is excellent at math. He surpassed his grade level when I tested him; however, he struggles significantly in reading and writing. Although he possesses the intellectual capacity to succeed, he lacks the familial aid necessary to understand the phonetics and nuanced semantics particular to the English language. Eventual success in the workforce, as well as access to universities, depends almost entirely upon how one student does in comparison with other students. As a result, not only do students with linguistic disadvantages find difficulty navigating through everyday life, but they will always have fewer opportunities in comparison to their anglo classmates. With less potential opportunities, the prospect of social mobility becomes dimmer: the education system ultimately prevents these students from accessing the same standard of education that their peers enjoy. The prominence of learning disabilities among these students also contributes heavily to this problem, as the educational system leaves many of these students behind. As of now the resources necessary to bridge the gap have not been allocated on a national level, but a number of nonprofits actively aim to fulfill this role.
My experience as a volunteer leads me to believe in the importance of cross-cultural service and the personal transformations that occur as a result. Edward Said, a notable literary scholar, examines this idea of “the Other”–a term commonly associated with any society, nationality or class that one culture perceives as foreign to their own. Said, along with countless other philosophical and sociological thinkers, firmly believe that “the Other” contains an essential component of the self. This sect of the self can only be realized through active engagement with “the Other” in conjunction with authentic self-discovery. When these exaggerated differences between us and “the Other” arise with ostensibly impossible reconciliation, both the unconscious (or conscious) practice of “othering” can appear dangerous to the very fabric of society. Said proposes that racism, sexism, and colonialism are all the unfortunate results of this practice. Noticing cultural differences in language and our understanding of other people as different is inevitable because–well, these are differences we notice! However celebrating these different understandings of the world is not only essential for personal transcendence, but for the transformation of an oppressive society as well.
Earnestly interacting with radically different–and even conflicting–worldviews leads to the discovery of human universals and the recognition of the teleological tendency we all strive to fulfill. Language itself is riddled with latent meaning and connotations that affect the way we think about the world. A monolinguist is therefore confined to the structure of their language and cannot reason outside of it. In order to transcend the barriers of our own thinking and create a global community, we must make a serious attempt to exist (at the very least, imperfectly) in “the Other’s” community–and this can only be achieved through the study of language. CIANA offers a space where these important interactions and discoveries can be made. This cross-cultural exchange is far from a one-sided attempt to impose American values unwillingly on a student. In many ways, I benefit from these programs as much as my students do. By visiting the community of Little Egypt and communicating in Arabic, I routinely embrace the opportunity to enhance my own cultural knowledge while improving my linguistic skills.
Two gaps are bridged at CIANA: one being theirs and the other–mine. Without this nonprofit organization (and so many others like it) many of these problems would indefintely persist to plague immigrant communities, making individual members “Others” by default. As of now, many of these families feel marginalized due to their cultural tradition while their children are forced to receive a second-class education because of the obstacles this lack entails. Right now, the most important effort we can make in building an inclusive global community requires us to exist as “the Other”. In other words, we must realize what is both foreign and inessential about our own cultures. Through this recognition, “the Other” becomes the self, thus disclosing the universality of human nature. The ultimate endeavor–that of love and community–exists for all people and should be enjoyed equally amongst those inhabiting our nation.
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