The proverbial pot is melting in the basement of a Glen Ellyn Lutheran church.
Around cafeteria tables sit a teenage jockey, a Muslim nurse, a bodyguard, a Sudanese mother of two, an Iraqi salon owner and a Lutheran high school student.
From their disparate backgrounds, they come together with the common goal to build better lives through English-language classes.
“It’s amazing. My heart is just huge right now. This takes a lot of courage for everybody,” said Maryanna Milton of the People’s Resource Center in Wheaton. “It’s like seeing a puzzle of the world coming together.”
Milton said this English as a Second Language program differs from others — not just in the diversity of its students but in its organizers and tutors.
They include teens with the Darien-based Mohammed Webb Foundation, which seeks to bridge Islamic practices with American culture; representatives from the People’s Resource Center in Wheaton and DuPage United, two social service agencies; and members of Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn and mosques in Villa Park and Glendale Heights.
The students include Christian and Muslim children alike, as well as adults from Lebanon, Poland, Sudan and elsewhere.
“This is a thrilling moment for us to see different people from different cultures and different faiths learning from one another,” said Debbie Fulks, a member of Faith Lutheran and DuPage United.
Adds Milton: “That’s what’s really going to lead to better understanding of each other and of different cultures … We are so similar.”
Nicole Mohiuddin of Lake in the Hills is a nurse who attends the Islamic Foundation mosque in Villa Park. Born and raised in the U.S. by her Indian father and Polish mother, she got involved after receiving an e-mail asking if she’d like to help Muslim refugees.
Seventeen-year-old Lindsay Hornell of Glen Ellyn got involved just because she wanted to volunteer and fill some of her free time over the summer.
“It’s so much more fun than I thought it was going to be. I was nervous at first, at the thought of teaching someone to speak English,” she said. “I love it. It’s very rewarding.”
Fulks said the program works on several levels: It’s building a stronger community by showing people how to become involved and solve issues, it’s increasing literacy awareness, it’s teaching others English and it’s enabling both students and tutors to learn about other cultures and faiths.
One student, Rugaya Sourein, grew up in Sudan but fled civil war there a few years ago. She lived in Egypt for 18 months before coming to the U.S. with her husband. The couple, who have two young daughters, came for the freedom and educational opportunities.
A former chauffeur and bodyguard, Hassan Al Sumarrai lived in Lebanon for 24 years and fled in late June with his wife, Iman, and their five children. They came for the chance at a better life, for more than surviving in a windowless two-room apartment.
Guma Adam, who is uncertain of his own age but estimated it at 35, roamed between four countries before coming to the U.S. He lived in Sudan until 1983, when he fled to Egypt for three months before going to Iraq for six years, then Turkey for two years, returning to Iraq for four years and briefly venturing back into Sudan.
“I wanted to see if the situation improved, but it was worse. In Sudan, there is no life,” he said.
His father was killed because he was a Christian. Two brothers and other relatives have tried to flee to Chad but remain trapped in a no-man’s land between the two countries’ border patrols.
“Some are starving. They’re not OK,” he says.
In just the first few sessions, participants forged bridges.
A Muslim man and a Christian man sit side by side at the same table learning English.
“In their own countries, they probably wouldn’t even be able to talk to each other,” Fulks said.
Likewise, Muslim teens and their Christian counterparts remained in their respective groups at the training session, but they mingled during the activities at the subsequent tutoring kickoff class.
A Sudanese man serves as a translator for an Iraqi native who knows even less English.
An Iraqi man filled with contempt for Syrian jailers who had beaten him finds friendship with a tutor whose ancestors hail from Syria.
At another session, a male voice chanting prayers in an adjacent room spills into the tutoring room.
“He’s leading a Muslim prayer in a Christian building. Only in America,” program coordinator Naazish YarKhan said. “It’s collaboration, cooperation. That’s what it’s all about.”