Thursday, May 20, 2010

COURAGE BY Taskeen Khan, 12 - 1st Place Winner in National Competition

“Courage. When people hear that word they think of famous heroes. Soldiers, cancer survivors and civil rights activists also come to mind. I think of all those people but there are a few more on my list such as a lady named Ahlam. She had to come from a different country all alone because in her country, women did not have equal rights. Ahlam spoke out against this and was persecuted by her government. She had to flee as an asylee to the US. I don’t know if I would have been able to speak out, knowing those consequences. It’s not always easy to settle in to a new country like she did. You may have to learn a new language, meet new people, make new friends, and get used to a new culture. Those are only a few of the many hurdles new immigrants face.

Ahlam could have stayed in her country despite its unequal treatment of women and done nothing. However, she spoke out against the government risking her own life. It takes plenty of courage to do what you think is right even if your life is on the line. Doing this and knowing you will face challenges is even harder. It’s similar to standing up to a bully at school.

The other challenge was leaving her personal comfort zone to come to America. One of the first issues Ahlam faced in a new country was finding an inexpensive place to stay. Ahlam knew that there were probably many social service organizations willing to help people in her situation from her work in public policy in her own country. She called organization after organization. What made this especially hard was that she knew very few words of English. It takes courage to ask people you don’t know at all for help.

Another problem Ahlam faced was learning a new language. Week after week she collected money for English classes by doing jobs that didn’t require much talking, such as house cleaning. She found these jobs through a lady at one of the social service organizations that had befriended her. It’s courageous to do jobs that are below your qualifications because you feel degraded. Ahlam did it because she knew it was her lifeline.

After her first session of classes, Ahlam could understand the language and say a few words of English. This was progress but the cleaning jobs soon become few and far between. So she got on the phone again. She found a program called RAP (Refugee Assistance Programs) that could help people from other countries find jobs that they were suitable for. After a quick interview, they found she was passionate about cooking. This was important because she didn’t need to be fluent in English and could still hold onto a piece of her culture. They helped her start a catering business from her home that helped her raise more money for English lessons. At first there were very few orders but as word spread and RAP organized public tastings, her business grew. At the end of 2009, two years after she had arrived, Ahlam was fluent in English and had her own business up and running.

Ahlam was now settled into the US because of the help of many people and her original courage to leave her home. She had now seen how many hands make light work and wanted to make it happen for others. Ahlam knew her first problem had been finding an inexpensive house and learning a language. So she started low fee English lessons for people who were new to America. She also used her catering business as a stable job people could participate in till they found other work. The extra money often helped these individuals pay for rent and food. All these good things happened because of one woman’s courage to leave home and start a new life.”