What I Learned in Rotary Today | 13 August 2015

by Glenn on August 18, 2015

Our guest speaker in Rotary was … well, we’ll call her Jane, for reasons of privacy. Jane is a recent high school graduate and a recipient of one of our $2,500/yr. renewable college scholarships. I think we have 14 students on scholarship at any one time, a $35,000 annual commitment from our club. (I do say “our” club, but I am still rather new and joining this club means you inherit a pretty significant legacy the continuation of which I play a very small part.)

A few months ago, Jane and some other students came to our East Portland Rotary Club where they were announced as the newest recipients of the scholarship award. Each student came up to the front and told us what school they were graduating from, where they were headed to college, and what they were going to study. We cheered for them and once or twice a year the students will visit a club meeting to tell us how their studies are going.

In addition to announcing that she was headed to a local college to begin studies in medicine, Jane told us that she was born in Afghanistan, moved to Pakistan, and then emigrated to the United States as a young girl. She wanted to become a doctor so that she could move back to Afghanistan and help people.

I was intrigued by her story and after the meeting we talked briefly and I asked her if she would be willing to share more of her life story with the club. I am so happy she agreed.

Jane’s story begins before she was in the picture. She recounted two scenes from her family that you can tell aren’t old history. Scene One is the day a Soviet rocket hit their home. It flew through the kitchen. Somehow no one was killed, but she mentioned there was another family that lost seven members when their home was hit by a rocket. (These were the days the Soviet Union was trying to occupy Afghanistan.)

Scene Two is the day that Jane’s oldest sister, who was six at the time, walked into the street and was run over by a car driven by someone from the occupying Soviet Union. Jane’s sister died. The driver never stopped. (Later, during questions, she was asked how many kids there were in her family. She said, “Three boys and two girls, well, there are supposed to be three and three, but my oldest sister …” It wasn’t an emotional statement, but it’s clear it hasn’t been forgotten.)

This is the family into which Jane was born.

Here are some things we learned about Jane:

1. Her transition to an American school as (if I recall correctly) a 7-year-old wasn’t easy. She had learned some English, but not the idioms that would be known by the students who grew up in this country. She also mentioned some bullying early on because of her accent. She still has a little bit of an accent, but she is fluent in English, Farsi, and understands one other language.

2. I prefaced a question with a statement that I’ve always understood myself to be an American. (I have German and English heritage and both my grandfathers were immigrants, but I think of myself as an American.) I wondered, since she has lived in three different countries, how she thinks of herself. In short, she is a world citizen. She has no immediate plans to leave the United States with college, medical school, and the establishing of a medical career as her next (big) steps. But she has a strong concern for the poor and for women in Afghanistan and plans to go back.

3. Concerns were expressed about her safety if she did go back and someone wondered what it would be like for her to return. She talked about how she would have to dress and how much less freedom she would experience there. Not her words, but somehow she accepts the trade-off of surrendering her rights so that she can do the work she wants to do.

4. I asked her when she understood that she was pretty smart. (Jane is a very high achieving student.) Our president jumped in to say, “You don’t have to answer that.” But she answered the question with something like, “I don’t know about being smart. I can’t say if I’m smart or not. I do know about working hard.”

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Something else I learned this day. When Jane and her mother arrived for our meeting I asked what kind of breakfast they wanted—fruit, oatmeal, or the full breakfast. They said the full breakfast, so I made arrangements to have it served while we went through our opening announcements. I was sitting a ways away, but when breakfast was served, my heart sank. I saw Jane and her mom talking with the server and I realized what was going on—there was bacon on the plate. Jane’s family is Muslim and doesn’t eat pork. I was embarrassed, but they couldn’t have been more gracious when I apologized after the meeting. It was an easily avoidable faux pas, but it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be delighted having what the rest of us were having.

I am grateful for moments like this when my narrow world can widen, even if only slightly, to understand how others see themselves in the world. And even to be a little nervous about the word “others.”

The motto of Rotary is “Service Above Self” and it seems like Jane, whose only connection to Rotary is as a new recipient of a scholarship by our small Central East Portland Rotary Club, embraces the spirit of Rotary.

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The Central East Portland Rotary Club meets at 7:00 am on Thursday mornings at the Elmer’s at 101st and Sandy Blvd. in Portland, Oregon.