By Dominique Freire
It all started on a whim. I had been volunteering through our libraries teaching English to immigrants as part of their English as a second language (ESL) program. When Covid struck, libraries were forced to close and many learners were left with no one to help them, leaving them lost and isolated.
Gradually the libraries turned to Zoom sessions, but still many immigrants were left desperately wanting to practice their English skills and feeling unable to approach Americans.
Seeing the gap, I asked my friends and family if they would speak with an immigrant for an-hour a week to help them practice. To my utter joy, they all merrily obliged.
In an instant, learners told their immigrant friends about their wonderful volunteers and from there it snowballed. The demand grew, rapidly outstripping my meager network of families and friends. I urgently needed more volunteers, but had exhausted everyone I knew.
So I turned to my local ‘Nextdoor’ platform to ask neighbors for help in volunteering to chat with immigrants through Zoom.
The genius of Nextdoor is its appeal to local community connections, which was clearly part of the motivation for the participants. Before going to bed that night I checked the responses and was delighted that four neighbors were interested. How wonderful and generous is our neighborhood.
Be careful what you ask for! The next morning I awoke to an avalanche of responses: 43 neighbors had volunteered to help! They too were desperate for human connection; the growing familiarity with Zoom lowered the barrier to people volunteering. After jumping for joy over the responses, panic set in: How on earth am I going to interview, vet and manage all these volunteers by myself!? I had zero funding and little experience in this area.
Steadily I matched each volunteer neighbor with an immigrant learning “buddy” and the pairs began cheerily Zooming every week for an hour. As you would expect, the immigrant learners loved chatting with their American volunteers and were so grateful.
A sample of responses: “Americans are so kind, they help me learn,” “My volunteer is so patient and open,” etc. What I had not anticipated was how much the volunteers would also learn and enjoy these conversations: “I love learning about (Turkey, Korea, Afghanistan, Brazil, India),” or “It’s like traveling through their eyes. I look forward to our conversations so much.”
It occurred to me that these encounters were much more than just “chats,” but real vibrant cultural exchanges.
The conversations provided an opportunity to explore other cultures, traditions, customs, beliefs, societies, languages and much more. The exchanges revealed the extent that disparate cultures have in common with American culture and the mutual interest therein.
This grassroots initiative had become interactions of inclusivity, understanding and trust, a potent local brand of global diplomacy at its best.
Furthermore, these simple exchanges were at zero cost and yet so impactful. While the internet has long promised to “bring people around the world together,” this cultural exchange was real and tangible evidence of that promise.
The volunteers began to “proselytize” about the network and convert friends to become volunteers; again the network grew like wildflowers. In a twinkle, every eager learner on my waiting list had been matched with a generous American volunteer.
The network currently has 73 volunteers facilitating over 81 one-to-one English conversations a week. I estimate since September 2020, there have been over 540 English language practices and cultural exchange meetings.
Thanks to Covid subsiding, many of the meetings are now in person, with some immigrants cooking a traditional meal for the volunteers and immigrant families meeting American families and forming lifelong friendships.
This experience is one of the reasons I love the northern Virginia community. These cultural exchanges emerged humbly and spontaneously, helping to promote an open, multicultural society from ordinary neighborhoods upwards.
They demonstrate the kindness and generosity of everyday Americans and the core American values of equality, diversity, and unity. I am truly proud to live in such a neighborhood.
Given the success of this network, next on the agenda is world peace!
Will you join me?
Dominique Freire is a resident of Falls Church.