Young Toledo resident teaches in the Middle EastWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Betsy Fisher, a Whitmer High School graduate and Denison University senior, did not get a typical summer job when classes ended in May. Instead, she started teaching Iraqi refugees how to speak English in Amman, Jordan.
She moved to Jordan in January to study Arabic and The Middle East and stayed after school to teach Iraqis ranging from ages 14 to 60 who plan to move to America.
“The general sentiment is that life will be better for them in America,” she said. “Many of them have lost family members and seen friends killed.”
Many of her students had to leave Iraq because they worked for the United States government as body guards, translators or contractors, and various terrorist groups wanted to kill them, she said.
Fisher has three classes five days a week, in which she teaches her students how to speak English, advises them how to look for housing in the United States and understand the culture. She said she has to advise the families on American weather patterns because many of them decide where to move in the United States based on avoiding snow.
Fisher started with 80 other Americans in her study abroad program at the University of Jordan and now has eight American students who stayed in Jordan to work in different places. Though it took a while to adapt to Jordan, now she said she barely notices that she’s the only American working to teach the Iraqi refugees.
“Getting outside the western bubble is very important, especially coming from the world’s superpower,” she said. “It’s important that we have a broad perspective.”
She broadened her perspective almost right away, she said, when she realized the major ideological differences between Jordanian society and American culture. Americans tend to value personal liberties more while Jordanian people revolve around religion and family. Instead of proclaiming independence at young ages like Americans do, Jordanians will live with their parents and grandparents until they get married, she said.
As an American, Fisher gets special treatment from most Jordanians — especially men. Though cab drivers will not converse with Jordanian women, they will talk to her because they know American women have more frequent interaction with men, she said.
“People view Arab women as being universally oppressed, and gender barriers are much bigger here but certainly not insurmountable,” she said. “The overall perception of American women here is that they have loose morals because they see our music videos and movies.” She added that she’s trying to show people in Jordan that all American women are not like that.
Most of the conversations she’ll have with such cab drivers revolve around her opinion of President Barack Obama, she said. They always check to see if she approves of him and tell her they that they “love him” in Jordan, she added.
She will return to Toledo on July 14, to spend parts of the summer with her parents Ann, who contributes the Kids Quiz to Toledo Free Press, and Keith. Living in Toledo actually helped shape her interest and understanding of Arabic culture, she said. Moving back before she heads back to school will be a good transition because she has a lot of friends of Arabic decent that she can talk to, she added.
With a population of about 5,000 Arabic people in Toledo and more than 10 Middle Eastern restaurants, Toledo has always had a rich Arab-American history, said Mohammed Alo, editor of toledomuslims.com. Generations dating back to the early 1900s settled in Toledo from various Middle Eastern nations, and even contributed to the election of the first Arabic American mayor of a major city in 1959, he said.
Fisher has also traveled to Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian region and though she arrived right after Israel ordered ground strikes against the Gaza Strip, she said that she never felt unsafe.
When she merely gets on the bus, guards order her to walk through a metal detector, wave sensor wands over her and search her bags, she said.
“It’s very intensive; you feel safer because it’s there, but you also know it’s there for a reason,” she said.
Fisher said she looks forward to coming home to see her family, her friends and eat American breakfast cereals — one of the foods she misses the most.