Today, NYU Berlin Resident Assistant Adam Silow reflects on his experiences as an English tutor for a young new Berliner from Syria and the power of “talks without borders.” His initiative is part of a long-term relationship between NYU Berlin and Unionhilfswerk, a German non-profit that supports refugees and other Berliners who find themselves in need of community and resources. Since 2015, staff and students have supported the work of Unionhilfswerk and similar institutions in a variety of ways. Initiatives include coaching workshops on “Teaching German as a Foreign Language” for voluntary helpers, a community garden project with families currently living in a welcome center operated by Unionhilfswerk, and regular English language tutoring.
Talks Without Borders
By Adam Silow
The dark roast of Syrian coffee wafts between our “Denglish” conversations as we swap stories, cultural idiosyncrasies, and language tips. Since this summer, myself and a young Kurdish man have met typically once a week for an hour-long tutoring session to improve his English language skills. Both of us are new Berliners, yet our paths to this sprawling German metropolis could not have been more different. In 2015, I was wrapping up my penultimate year of university, studying economics and global studies at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. Two years ago, he was attending middle school in northeastern Iraq. Rather than return home to California after graduation, I decided to explore my European roots by using my German citizenship to move across the Atlantic and take a job as an NYU Berlin Resident Assistant. At the same time thousands of miles across the globe, a middle schooler and his family in Iraq faced an increasingly dangerous environment of instability and violence. They soon joined thousands in an extraordinary journey to escape war in their homeland for uncertain future in Europe.
Our disparate paths crossed in August 2017 in Berlin when the volunteering coordinator at Unionhilfswerk, a German non-profit that supports refugees and partners with NYU Berlin on a variety of initiatives, contacted our team to ask for assistance on behalf of a young man who was eager to find an English tutor. I had been looking for a way to more concretely engage with my newly adopted community and jumped at the chance to meet this young man. After our initial session, we agreed to meet weekly for an hour and set new topics of discussion each week. Although shy at first, his immense appetite for learning languages quickly became apparent; before arriving in Europe, he spoke numerous regional dialects of both Kurdish and Arabic as well as being almost fluent in German after barely two years in Berlin. Next on his list was English. I tried to hide my embarrassment as I realized at his age my language skills extended only to English, German, and a halting level of high school French. Yet, I was more than happy to help him continue his linguistic mastery.
His school year was starting soon and I did not want to make him sit through our sessions simply as another required course with tedious grammar lessons, which I would not have been fully qualified to teach either. Over his mother’s strong Syrian coffee, we let each session develop as a relaxed exchange of stories from our hometowns, our family and friends, recent trips, and similarities and differences between our experiences as newcomers to this quirky, graffiti-filled, “multi-kulti” community we now found ourselves in. He was skeptical during one session when I shared with him “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strips from my childhood. I translated the panels and tried to explain how the mischievous adventures of a young boy and his imaginary toy tiger were silly, yet dotted with meaningful parables (I doubt that I convinced him, but he was always kind enough to indulge my attempts). Other days, we joked about the Doc Martens-wearing hipsters who seemed to fill Berlin to its artisan-coffee-roasted brim all the while sheepishly admitting that a part of ourselves was slowly assimilating into Berlin’s
alternative culture. At other times, we discussed the reality that even among the seemingly open and inclusive community in Berlin and other parts of Europe, dark and xenophobic factions not only remain entrenched, but have gained traction in certain political wings. Whether light or serious, these conversations flowed between English, German, and a sprinkling of Arabic and Kurdish. It soon became a highlight of my weekly life in this new community.
When I first landed in Berlin, I was fully aware that I was one of countless newcomers to this city. I knew, though, that many had arrived here not by choice and privilege as I had, but by necessity and loss. There were moments when the political turmoil and divisive discourse that splashed across newsfeeds and headlines made me feel overwhelmed and uncertain as to how I could find space to engage with my new community and fellow newcomers in a way that was humble, constructive, and human–stepping beyond digital echo chambers. For me, these English sessions were a refreshing opportunity to do just that. And what began as a simple request for an English tutor soon blossomed into a warm friendship.
Today, my phone continues to buzz with news alerts and social media notifications about the ongoing challenges that rack my adopted and native homes on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in places further abroad. Violence, instability, social and economic inequality, myopic policies, and fear-based politics are but a few of the immense challenges that are dividing communities, cities, and countries. Our weekly sessions have certainly made no material impact on these events. Yet, even when things seemed too out of reach to change, I found that I can still dream big while learning and building bridges within my reach. From that vantage point, stumbling together through new languages to have a conversation–one that stretches across differences, cultures, and borders–seems like a pretty good place to start.