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Teaching English in Najaf, Iraq

Each day in the English conversation class we focus on a different theme. We have been going from easier topics, like greetings, directions, food shopping and cooking to more difficult subjects like friendship, emotions, and the values that motivate and drive us. Yesterday our main teacher, Maram (She is a rare gem, worth her weight in gold) asked “What is your motto in life?”

I am not quick on my feet, so to speak, and need time to think before answering such a question. Some people, however, answered with little hesitation. It was deeply moving to hear the responses from different students.

Here are just a few of the comments:

“To make every minute count.”

“To care deeply.”

“To keep learning.”

“To help people reach their goals.”

“To live in the moment.”

“To be better than I was before.”

“To share what you have.”

I think the comments speak for themselves as to the spirit and depth of the participants.

Sadly, my time with the class is drawing to a close, and I am having to prepare myself emotionally to leave them. We have indeed, as Sami continues to emphasize, become like a family.

Friday is a holy day, part of the weekend. We have made it a day for informal outings and fun, an added time to practice English! It is completely optional as people need the weekend for family and other obligations after a busy work week. But those who are able to join in bring a friend, their spouse, their children.

We’ve eaten out in a restaurant, role playing waiter and customer. We’ve gone on a picnic, taken a boat ride, and had tea and juice by the river. We have laughed and joked together, and shed as well a few tears.

From the beginning, I urged them, “You need to learn to speak English so that you can tell us YOUR stories. We need to hear your stories, and the stories of your parents and grandparents.”

In just four weeks I have watched them grow in self-confidence and the courage to speak.

And students keep coming. We are looking for “native” speakers from the U.S., U.K., or Canada who can come for at least one-month periods to join the classes, to assist in this valuable project. It is best to go through Sami, our irreplaceable “headmaster.” His email is shown below.

Warmest greetings to everyone who reads this and heartfelt thanks to Sami, Maram, Mohammed and all of the students who have embraced me with such love and acceptance.

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Cathy Breen is a member of the New York Catholic Worker community and a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

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