Ola El-Wahsh’s Story
As retold by Rebecca Parsell
I wish there was a universal language which everyone knew, so we all could easily communicate. A few years ago, my husband and our two daughters moved to the United States, so my husband could continue his degree at the University of Michigan for business. He came here first though to get things settled and make it easier for my daughters and I. The main language I knew was Arabic and very little English. When we got here my daughters and I had to move to California temporarily which was extremely difficult. I had to become the mother, father, caretaker, and chauffer.
It was very hard to communicate with others when the dominant language was English and I did not know it at all. The only places I went to were the store, home, and my daughters’ school to drop them off. Unfortunately because of the language barrier, the only people I communicated with for several months were my children and no one else, which got kind of lonely. I did not understand all the ways of America especially since I could not figure out what people were saying. When I would attempt to talk to others they could not understand me and I could not understand them. One thing I did enjoy more was the roads. First, I did not have to worry about talking to anyone and second, it was so much better driving here. In my home country, Egypt, there were no set lines for people to stay in whereas in America there are rules and regulations that the driving community must follow. After the first few months of the same boring routine of home, store, and my daughters school I decided to change that.
I signed up to take classes for
adults learning English as a second language.
Once my English was better I decided to volunteer
in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. The teacher found
out I have a degree in fine arts from my home country, so he asked
me create a tree for the classroom. Instead of just drawing a tree on a piece
of paper, I made a 3D image of a tree that “grew” inside the corner of the
classroom. It had a trunk made of different shades of crinkled brown paper
that shown roughness like a real tree. Then it had branches amongst the top
with leaves attached that were different shades of green and all different
sizes containing names of the children. The tree came alive and ever since
then I continued to make different art projects for the classroom whether
for the door or the hallway. I even did some for other classrooms.
Although, the best part was seeing my own daughter excited
and saying, “Look my mom created that!” Seeing the
glimmer in my daughters eyes I knew she was
proud of me like I am of her. With all the
excitement from her and the other kids I
knew I was doing the right
thing. For the moment, the
language barrier wasn’t
an issue anymore. This simple
piece of art in the form of
a tree allowed me to realize
that I was kicking down the
walls of the language barrier.
As time went on I continued
taking my English classes and
helping in my daughter’s
classroom. It started
to become easier to pick
up the words and the
grammar of the English
language and while the
kids were learning words, so
was I. Both through my artistic expressions
and my voice it started to become a little easier to talk with
others and it wasn’t as confusing. Even though I am not perfect and still
learning at least I am trying. After a few more months’ we moved back with my
husband in Michigan and I felt a little more comfortable with English as a second language.
I am very proud of my wonderful husband and my amazing and inspirational daughters. My daughters and husband push me to do better like I do for them. The tree was the first point in which I felt comfortable being myself. I thought I did not need to be sorry for learning something in which I was new at. There are many things that I still don’t know. My daughters will say one thing and it will go right over my head especially all the different sayings that get tossed around in America but my daughters are willing to teach me.
I wish I was not shy when I first got here because maybe I would know more, or maybe the tree would have taken place sooner. One thing I understand now is that communication is key and to get better at something I need to keep working at it especially with English. I have overcome many things and just like a tree that grows, I am getting better with a lot of things I do especially the English language.
This story originally appeared in Facing College: Immigrant & International Students’ Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan.