DSC00865It’s almost 5:30. Time to walk the one block from my front door to the neighborhood center where I volunteer once a week as a homework tutor for Horn of Africa Services, a nonprofit serving Seattle’s East African community. I wonder what challenges await me today. Will I find myself trying to explain what a “bale of hay” is? Corral the attention of a first-grader who is convinced the police car in the alley might be here for someone he knows? Search for scissors and a glue stick for a “word-sorting” homework assignment that involves pasting postage-sized pictures of words with similar endings in the correct columns? The word-sort worksheet makes me wonder if the teacher who assigned it really enjoys the mental picture of parents and other homework helpers, like me, down on our knees gathering up flyaway scraps of homework confetti. (I don’t remember my own children having to use glue to do homework very often, though there was that one multi-day, sweat-and-tear-stained project that called for recreating Fort Vancouver out of popsicle sticks.)

At a training for volunteers, Program Director Dereje Zewdie began by defining culture as, quote, “what makes you a stranger when you’re away from home.” Walking to the tutoring center, I’m only a few hundred yards from where I now live. A mere ten miles from the house where I grew up. I don’t think about My Culture because I live in it. It is omnipresent; as invisible as air.

But all that changes when I open the door and walk in. Nearly everyone else in the room is about nine thousand miles, give or take, from the place they or their parents call home. And so Culture, the whole concept of it, is suddenly present, visible, tangible. Their culture, my culture—our rules, beliefs, traditions, language, values; everything human families transmit from one generation to the next—hovers around us.

What breaks the ice is the goal we all share: to get the homework done. The packets are due Friday, so we’re down to the wire on Thursday evenings. Huddled together over word sorts and math problems; over assigned stories full of puzzlers like “bales of hay;” we forget for an hour or two how strange we are to each other. Me with my uncovered, blonde-brown-gray hair. They with their colorful hijab.

There usually are not enough tutors to work one on one, so we juggle. I might find myself reading out loud with a kindergartener and a first-grader, stopping every few minutes to help a second grader add columns. After an hour of this, I often feel like my brain has been scissored into word-sort confetti.

According to Historylink’s 2010 article on Seattle’s Somali community, Somali students are the second largest bilingual group in the Seattle Public Schools. Amharic, Tigrinya and Oromo are also among the top eight languages spoken in the district. Seattle King County Public Health estimates there are about 40 thousand East African immigrants in King County. Some nonprofit organizations put the number much higher.

I’m not an academically valuable tutor. My math skills are rudimentary. But I’m comfortable around children, and I can put a LOT of gusto into reading and writing. Over my first several months, I’ve seen a few readers shift from stop-and-go to full-speed-ahead, and that is gratifying, even though I played only a small, once-a-week part in their progress.

In a recent Crosscut column, former Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle President Bill Stafford pointed out that Bellevue is now over 30 percent foreign born and Seattle 25 percent. “Whether you are a newspaper, theater company, medical provider or retailer,” writes Stafford, “to be successful, you must understand the changing demographics of the Puget Sound community.”

I appreciate his point, even though I am not any of those things. What keeps me coming back on Thursdays is: these are my neighbors. I want to know them better. If I had different talents, I might find some other way to do that. But for me, sounding out words with 6 and 7-year-olds is a place to start.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.