Thursday, June 26, 2008

Portrait #28: A changed woman

Today I met with a representative from a local NGO. When she came with her driver to pick me up and take me to her office, I was surprised to hear that she spoke excellent English. Somehow I'd expected English to be very hard for her, but it was almost flawless.

So after a very brief but productive businessy meeting, I asked her where she'd learned her English. She told me that she'd been an English Literature major at the University of Damascus (the same course of study as the main character in my book!). But a year and a half into her university studies, she'd been given a grant to finish her undergraduate studies in America. So she'd lived in Pittsburgh for 2 1/2 years where she studied something along the lines of business communications.

As we got to talking, it became clear that her life was all about before-and-after America. Before America she had been a quiet girl who never left her house. She had hardly known her way around Damascus, much less the rest of the country. Before America she hadn't known anything about the international community in Damascus and in fact had never heard of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) or nonprofits. The concept of volunteering to help others would not have occurred to her. Before America she'd had few friends outside of her family and close school friends, all from a similar background to her. Before America she'd not known about cultural activities, such as dancing lessons and museums.

The woman I met, though, was dressed very modernly and carried herself with the confidence of someone who can hold her own in a competitive setting. She not only spoke perfect English, but told me she makes a deliberate effort to befriend people from different countries around the world. She offered to take members of our international group around Damascus, and recommended the Arabic dance lessons at the Russian Cultural Centre. (But she still doesn't know how to give directions to her office.) She now works for an NGO, and besides being employed by a nonprofit, she also spends a good bit of time volunteering. She told me she is now discovering a whole side of Damascus she'd never known.

Two years in America changed her life. They opened her sense of reality to a world much bigger than her mother's kitchen and her cousins' weddings. They taught her to be independent and professional. But then again, I find myself wondering at the home she must come from. Because for a family here to let their university-aged daughter spend a couple of years thousands of miles away in America is almost unheard-of in this culture to start with. And yet she went, her family let her go, and she is a changed person because she went.

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