In Other Words
The official newsletter of the Volunteer English Program
Jackie, a VEP student since 2020, talks about her introduction to VEP through our conversation group and her close relationship with her tutor.
Life does not go as we planned. At least, it was my case… In August 2019, all my family- my husband, my son, and I left all we had in South Korea and started our lives in the US, at West Chester… Experiencing culture and life as a language training course student [in South Korea] and engaging in a real life with a kid and husband was totally different. I confronted so many situations that I’ve never faced before, and my English, which I mainly ‘studied’ for academic purposes, was not fluent enough as I expected it to be. On top of the language barrier and cultural differences I was facing on a daily basis, the loneliness that l never experienced in my lifetime struck me really hard. Without any friends and other family members except for my husband and son, I had nobody to talk to or not a single place to go when everyone headed to their work or school.
Then, I remembered one of my friends who already had experience in the US telling me… to go to the library and start from there… I went to a library in West Chester and found out there is an English conversation group. I joined the group, run by Jane from VEP, and eventually, I was able to meet my tutor, Sarah.
I don’t even know where to start to talk about my wonderful tutor, Sarah. Of course, language-wise I have learned a lot from her… Thanks to her patience and precise corrections, I am making fewer errors now, and… I am learning a lot of expressions that I can use in real life, and that gives me confidence that I can maybe mingle with other people living here better in the near future.
Not only about English, but she is also my role model in the US. She is one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and warm-hearted people I’ve met. Her knowledge of other cultures and understanding of human beings is just mind-blowing. When the Korean movie ‘Minari’ which is about the lives of Korean-Americans in the ’70s and ’80s was streaming, she watched it to get a better understanding of Korean culture. I was moved by her doing so since that movie was not a mega-hit nor English spoken. (Now I know how it is hard to watch a movie that is not in English.) I could feel her warm heart, spending her time to understand her student, and it really meant a lot to me.
Her healthy lifestyle, love of outdoor activities, and her enthusiasm for learning also inspired me in many ways. She encouraged me to start exercising, and I enrolled in YMCA. And her love for cycling made me think of getting bicycles for my whole family, and we are enjoying our bike ride every weekend. On top of that, her eagerness for learning musical instruments started an artistic fire in me, and I started to paint again (I used to paint Korean Folk Painting, called ‘Minhwa’), hoping to give her a decent and beautiful Korean traditional painting one day.
I shouldn’t forget to mention our outside-of-class activities together. Our first field trip was to a Delaware Art Museum. I love art and so does she. She picked me up at my apartment (due to my poor driving skill), and went to the art museum together, and it was such a joyful experience. After visiting the art museum, we had lunch at Pure Bread, which was my first American-style lunch outside of the house. I went to Longwood Gardens with her for the first time (and I became a member after that! I just fell in love with the place!), and she also invited all my family to her house for dinner. It was a lovely night and I was so grateful for the time. After I moved into a house I asked her about gardening, and she happily visited my house to plant some spring flowers. Thanks to her, our family had a great flower pot in our patio railing and was able to enjoy beautiful pinkish petunia and geranium all summer. We are planning to plant our fall flowers pretty soon, and I am looking forward to planting them.
Along with the time with my tutor from VEP, Sarah, I also take part in a West Chester library conversation group run by Jane (my [other] great teacher and I appreciate her so much too!) from time to time and I will help to facilitate a few sessions from the following week. This is another exciting experience I am looking forward to. The conversation group at the library was a great lead to know about VEP and its amazing tutors, and I am so grateful to Jane for being such a wonderful liaison. Without her conversation group, I would never be able to know about amazing programs like VEP.
If anyone asks me what VEP is to me, I would say this is more than just learning a language. It’s like you have another family and precious friend in a new place. When I first came here in the US, without a single friend, I didn’t even know where to buy groceries. I didn’t know where to go for exercise and how to enroll, where to take my kid on weekends, or what to do for certain school activities not to mention that I had no one to put as emergency contact information for my son’s summer camp. Now, I know and have answers to all the questions above, and in many cases, I got help from my tutor Sarah. So, I want to say what VEP is doing is saving a whole family and I do appreciate that. My goal, for now, is that, when I become more experienced living in the US, I want to find any way to help new immigrants living here in Chester County as VEP does. I want to help others as I got such great help. Thank you, VEP. Sending my special thanks to my tutor, Sarah and conversation leader, Jane.
Fikreta, a VEP student since 2017, reflects on her experience as a refugee and the current plight of Ukranians displaced by the Russian invasion of their country.
Instead of “Good Morning” on February 24, my husband greeted me with, “The Russians invaded Ukraine,” and glaring at me for a long time, he silently told me everything I needed to know. It was clear to me that his first thought had sparked a comparison of Ukraine’s situation with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Serbia militarily attacked in 1992. I could see him silently reliving all the horrors that followed, rewinding with incredible speed the beginning of the war in former Yugoslavia, when the official dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began. Until 1991, SFR of Yugoslavia was a state composed of 6 republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and the two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.
Later that day, I studied for a long time a photo of a mother and son, each with their heads bowed and leaning against each other. The photo had been taken at the train station of one of the Ukrainian cities on the Polish border. The boy, in my estimation, could have been about 16 years old, with long curly hair over his ears – a very youthful hairstyle. I thought, harmonious and relaxed he kept his head down, leaning uncertainly against his mother. He kept his hands down as if adhering to the sides of his body. He had a backpack on his back and a small suitcase on wheels next to him. At times his eyes were in a blank downward stare. Other times they were softly closed and aimed at the station’s floor as his mother leaned against him and hugged him with her arms.
The photo did not give an impression of the security of an embrace, it reflected mother and son overwhelmed by new circumstances. They seemed lost and many Ukrainians seemed lost that day, even though they remained in their own country, and even though the rest of the world felt nothing different. I was not surprised. As is usually the case, no one takes the beginning of war seriously until the last moment, when the first shots and the first grenades are fired, providing powerful deadly explosions.
There was no caption below the photo identifying the name of the train station. What I still remember today, after more than a month of war, is that I envisioned one entire story about that boy’s life while watching him rapidly board the train. What was he thinking as he stared at the floor? What was his mother thinking about? They probably thought they would ever meet again. Usually at the beginning of a war people believe that it will end quickly. They do not foresee all its horrors, so they often dream of a resumption of life as soon as possible, strongly believing that the “world powers” – the rest of Europe and the USA would help them to stop the war. Unfortunately, none of this is usually true!
I continued to study the boy’s long hair – I like such hairstyles for young people and imagined the intensity of his desires to quickly meet his loved ones who stayed in Ukraine! Where and to whom did he go? Which country was his destination? I knew that whatever he put in his backpack and suitcase would not be enough, and whatever he had in his wallet, he would spend quickly. I became sadder the longer I watched him. My war memories came to life as well as my own refugee path which had been deeply engraved in my memory. In April 1992 I left Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After four days of waiting for departures from Sarajevo airport, I managed to fly by military transport to Belgrade, Serbia. Then, for the first and only time in my life, I sat on the floor of an airplane while flying. The irony of my sitting in the bell, military transport to Belgrade [carrying] heavy artillery intended to destroy humans, amazed me. Perhaps, I was partly happier than this young man because I was able to leave war-torn Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and return to my parents in Montenegro, which then remained in the alliance with Serbia and was still a safe zone. But I also separated in Sarajevo from my older sister, my aunts, uncles, grandpa and many relatives and friends who remained. I was a little older than this young man, as a second-year student, fourth semester of biology at the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Sarajevo University.
My thoughts suddenly accelerated. I imagined him waiting in line in front of one of the state institutions in one of the European cities to register as a refugee, and to get a status on paper that will determine his stay, certain rights, and due to his age, further education perhaps, as well as financial assistance. The name of this refugee stay in foreign countries on paper often does not sound nice. On my refugee card in Germany, it said “Duldung” which means “suffering.” Nonetheless, the refugee is most grateful. There are exhausting and painful places where refugees must wait for the extension of their stay. I extended my stay every six months. I was surprised when I read that Ukrainians have been approved by European countries for a three-year stay including of course full health care, opportunities for schooling and work, which is huge. It was not like that for the Bosnian refugees.
Where will he be located, I thought. To quickly tame my imagination, I placed him with a relative or parental friend turning off the option of a refugee center. As I imagined, I saw him soon resuming his schooling, beginning to learn the language of the country he came [into], carrying the same backpack from the Ukrainian train station with new books in a new language, as well as carrying the burden of his heavy thoughts of his mother, father, and perhaps a brother, or sister, and all other loved ones left in the city. His days will be busy, but the nights in solitude will be difficult. Each time new thoughts will settle in his head, and this will start to shape him into a person he might not be otherwise. His clothes, food and shelter may be adequate, but his parents’ warm home, emotional, mental, and financial support will no longer be there. He will live for the day he can hug mom while praying day and night for her and the lives of his other loved ones! He will make friends and compare their lives with his life, which was until recently, not much different. Unfortunately, he will not have a clear picture of whether or not, he will be able to return to that life. The enemy has taken cruel care to prevent him from doing so. In short, he will grow up overnight, and his development as an adult male will be very different because it will be shaped by different experiences from those expected only a few months earlier.
This young and handsome boy is just one image of a thousand examples of the despair that war creates. Unfortunately, these days we are witnessing the horrors of the war as the world tries unsuccessfully to stop it with economic sanctions. This war in Ukraine, like any other, will cause enormous human suffering and pain, cause great human and material damage, disperse the population around the world. At this time, we do not know how it will end.
These stories were written by VEP students about their experiences as immigrants. To submit a student-written story, essay or poem for future editions of the newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.