In Search of Community: Eastern Michigan University hosts Afghani refugees for an intercultural exchange
David Fair: This is 89.1 WEMU and I’m David Fair. It’s been a year now, since a group of Afghani refugees arrived in Washtenaw county. They’ve been integrating into the community by sharing food, language and culture. How well has it been going? Eastern Michigan University professor and guest reporter, Sadaf Ali, went in search of an answer to that question.
Sadaf Ali: The demo kitchen in Rackham Hall on the Eastern Michigan University campus is bustling. Many of the Afghani women present are former refugees. They are teaching a group of graduate students from professor Zuzana Tomas’s class how to cook a traditional Afghani meal.
Yagana Sukhanyar: You put the oil after we heat the oil the onion. This is the first step.
Sadaf Ali: Yagana Sukhanyar was among the Afghanis that settled in Washtenaw County last year. Alongside the Afghani women are the students from Professor Tomas’s Academic Service Learning course. ASL is a teaching and learning strategy. It partners faculty and students with an outside organization which, typically, is a non-profit. A community need is identified and both parties work toward a common goal. Tomas says the ultimate goal of an ASL class is to gain further understanding of course content and an appreciation of the discipline and civic responsibility.
Zuzana Tomas: This event is a culmination of issues in teaching culture, engaged local afghan community and, today, they will be demonstrating the dish.
Sadaf Ali: Jewish Family Services is the only contracted resettlement organization in Washtenaw County. It has worked to help locate and integrate hundreds of families in Washtenaw County, including those from Afghanistan. The resettlement program is designed to help refugees with housing, education, employment and other services. Tomas says it’s not just a one-way street. She believes the Afghani families also offer benefit to the students.
Zuzana Tomas: The issue is when you are teaching people how to teach immigrants, these individuals are real assets. They are amazing. It was a topic they were really passionate about.
Sadaf Ali: Prior to the cooking demo, the graduate students spent several weeks planning via Zoom. That included teaching the Afghani women English cooking vocabulary and creating sequencing activities to help follow a recipe. Tomas’s students also recorded themselves doing demos at home which both groups viewed.
Yagana Sukhanyar: It is a very popular dish in Afghanistan. Yummy dish. I hope everyone likes it.
Sadaf Ali: Qabuli Palaw is traditionally made with steamed rice mixed with lamb, raisins and carrots. It is Afghanistan’s national dish. EMU students, like Tessa Wilson, were appreciative of the opportunity.
Tessa Wilson: We felt honored they chose a special dish. It’s been a great experience.
Sadaf Ali: Perhaps the biggest hurdle the families have to contend with is childcare. It has certainly been an issue most of the Afghani families. Alexandria Gross is among the graduate students in the class. Professionally, she teaches elementary school and is working on a TESOL certificate. She and other student volunteers worked with the young Afghani children on reading, writing and other English language skills.
Alexandria Gross: If we weren’t able to work with the elementary aged kids, the parents probably couldn’t be here. It’s been amazing.
Sadaf Ali: The Qabuli Palaw was served. Both groups pulled out plates and started spooning the warm rice and lamb onto each dish. Plates with steaming food were handed to the children, students and volunteers.
Dunya Sukhanyar: I like it because it’s my country’s dish. it’s really good.
Sadaf Ali: Dunya is Yagana’s oldest daughter. She’s starting the fifth grade this fall. She has also been helping as a translator for Tomas’s students and the younger Afghani children.
Dunya Sukhanyar: There was a book Mr. Cook had me read and there was one boy and two girls in our class that only speak Persian and I was translating for them.
Sadaf Ali: After everyone had eaten, Yagana addressed the room.
Yagana Sujhanyar: Today, we make Afghani Qabuli Palaw. Most people like this dish for Eid. It’s a familiar dish.
Sadaf Ali: It’s been a month after the intercultural meal demo, and after a period of reflection on the experience, Yagana feels there was a real connection to home.
Yagana Sujhanyar: It was great because I was able to cook a traditional Afghani dish with my friends and people from Afghanistan. I really enjoyed and I was hoping there would be more time.
Sadaf Ali: Yagana also appreciated the face-to-face format of the demonstration and that she was able to bring her kids. She hopes there will be more sessions in the future.
Yagana Sujhanyar: For me it was good because my kids can also go with the parent. I like in person classes that I can go to because my kids go with me. It was much easier.
Stacia Proefrock: So, one of the things that was challenging about this program is that for many of the students that participated, it was their first time participating in an in-person class environment because the majority of the students have been attending classes online. Because there's some pretty significant transportation and childcare barriers for the students in trying to get into in person classes, and so it took a little bit of wrangling for us to be able to get everybody to EMU at the same time with their kids to get their kids properly taken care of so that they could so they could be in class and enjoy that program was aimed towards school-aged children and their mothers.
Sadaf Ali: Stacia Proefrock is a Beginning Level ESL teacher at Jewish Family Services, and she coordinated the entire event. And as Yagana mentioned earlier, this program was designed with the idea of creating community.
Stacia Proefrock: I think one of the things that was the most valuable out of this program was the way that it put together women and their kids who had been somewhat socially isolated when the students were originally settled in the ever Ypsilanti area. There's a bit of a housing crisis and so many students were settled in apartments that were far away from each other. And, you know, for students for people who are used to being around big family groups being in an apartment with just your nuclear family was stressful and hard. And I think that one of the most positive pieces of feedback that I got was that the program helped the students to reconnect with other Afghans around them and feel like they were part of the community again.
Sadaf Ali: Professor Tomas hopes to continuing working with groups of Afghani refugees as part of her class and is already figuring out new avenues for intercultural exchanges.
Zuzana Tomas: I think perhaps a missed opportunity was not encouraging the American teachers to bring their children to the program and it’s something I struggled with. I was going back and forth and I think it would be good to try it next year. I think we should play with that idea.
Sadaf Ali: I’m Sadaf Ali
David Fair: For more information, visit our website at wemu-dot-org. I’m David Fair and this is your community NPR station, 89-1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.
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