Monday, July 23, 2007

Isabelle's School (by Isabelle)

Over the past couple of weeks I have become closely acquainted with a group
of young women in Sana'a, Yemen. These young women happen to be of a
community of minorities here in Yemen colloquially known as "akdam." By
spending numerous hours speaking with them and members of their community,
it became quite clear that this Yemeni racial minority faces problems of
discrimination and socioeconomic inequality that black Americans have fought
against and continue to tackle to this day. This discrimination, like in
America, leads to social disparities that can most easily be seen through
examining the members of the work force. The professional jobs as doctors,
lawyers, and even secretaries, in various offices are filled mostly by the
high class high school and university graduates. The majority of the
thousands of shops and market stalls are owned and operated by the "lighter
skinned" Yemenis—only a handful are owned or worked by the racial "akdam."
The "akdam" are treated as second class citizens and instead, fill the
majority of continuous street cleaning jobs. Though statistics are vague, if
even available, it is apparent that unemployment also runs rampant through
this community.

Accompanying these inequalities, the majority of Sana'anians hold a harmful
set of stereotypes towards these people that perpetuate and entrench the
social ramifications of discrimination, isolation, and repression. In
addition, in Yemen, due to social norms it is especially difficult for women
to advance independently. Thus, not only do the young women of the "akdam"
community have to overcome the stereotypes pinned on them for being
minorities, but they also have to overcome the universal struggle of being a
woman in Yemen.

Though these social troubles exist, there are also ways in order to overcome
some of the stereotypes that work against these women. It is my opinion
that the most powerful tool against this discrimination is education. With
education these women can gain self confidence in everyday life and
marketability in the workplace. One of the most valuable educational skills
here in Yemen is a working knowledge of the English language. I understand
that the reason that English is so important in the world is because of
America's overbearing cultural hegemony and the possibility to find an
untainted culture is shrinking faster each day. However, I also know that
with all odds working against them, it is the least I can do to give these
women and head start in forging their own way by teaching them an
increasingly valuable skill and tool: English. Though we have been working
on these lessons for the past month and, despite the stereotypes of laziness
and unintelligence, this class of about 16 has been learning faster than any
class I've taught, I realize that my time in Yemen is coming to a close. Not
having used any formal textbooks, the classes were useful and practical, yet
when I'm gone, these women will have no way to continue.

Therefore, I have taken a shift in priority from covering material in useful
doses to setting up a structure and providing them with the materials
(books, notebooks, writing utensils, etc…) necessary for a couple of the
more advanced students to continue the lessons and satisfy the ladies'
thirst for knowledge. Inshallah (God willing), I will be successful in at
least this.

Since the third week I was here, I have spent virtually all of my free time
with these girls and have seen them grow in courage in their knowledge from
the time we first met until now. We have bonded not only as friends, but as
sisters. I feel like I have helped them marginally by giving them a useful
skill that I possess, but they have helped me even more. I have rarely in
my life felt more appreciated for who I am than with these young women. They
have opened their home to me, fed me, showed me how to dress like a Yemenia
and pray like a Muslim. They have let me into their personal experiences,
sharing stories or pain and happiness, engagement parties, shopping, and
sleepovers. They have made sacrifices to their daily standard of life to
make me feel comfortable and accepted. I have grown to love these young
women and girls dearly and will miss them more than any experience I've had
in Yemen.

1 comment:

kjj1 said...

This sounds like a follow-up project--finding textbooks, supplies, etc.--that can easily be organized on this end when you return to Duke. Let's talk about it when you get back to campus.