The Talmud tells us whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the entire world. I am not sure my friend Meredith and I actually saved a life when we met a Syrian refugee in Elizabeth, N.J., but we definitely changed one. Perhaps our lives were changed, as well.
Meredith met Bara’a at a local Syrian supper club, where Bara’a was one of the cooks. With the help of Google Translate, the two women initiated a texting correspondence in Arabic and English. Subsequently, Meredith and I offered to take Bara’a to the Elizabeth Public Library, about a mile from her apartment. We believed that a library card would be her ticket to her new world. Imagine her pride when she showed two forms of ID, filled out an application, and immediately received a permanent card.
The ESL Express Corner (adult ESL materials) on the third floor was not our first destination. Rather, Bara’a wanted to explore the children’s room first. “The children (ages 2 and 3) need to learn the numbers and their ABCs,” she told us with her words, hands and, again, Google Translate. We responded similarly. Soon a pile of counting and alphabet books were sprawled on the table, as well as a beautifully illustrated book teaching the colors.
The two children’s librarians could not have been more helpful. They answered all our questions and gave us information to questions we did not know to ask. We highlighted Toddler Story and Dance Time on Bara’a’s new calendar. We learned about an ABC computer program available to kids at the library. The library is affiliated with Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), and we now have contact numbers for LVA of Union County, which provides individual or small group English lessons. We anticipate their helping Bara’a and her husband register.
Before you could say “hza tayibana wafaqk allah” (a phrase that’s translated to mean “good luck” in Arabic), Bara’a was sitting at a computer for the first time, logging into Baby Box University with Meredith’s help, and watching an instructional video on infant care. (Baby Box University is an online educational resource for new parents established by The Baby Box Co.) After all, her third child is due in July. The English was too difficult but the pictures were understandable. Again, with Meredith’s help, Bara’a passed a six-question online quiz and we printed out a certificate. Now she is eligible to receive a Baby Box that will provide sleep space for the newborn and essentials for post-natal care, for free.
Bara’a wanted to check out two books, but before we completed our library mission, we made sure she knew about the ESL resources available and will follow-up on the classes offered at the library.
Our last stop was the circulation desk. A patron is allowed 25 books, but Bara’a had only six. She kept counting them all morning, as if they were precious cargo she needed to safeguard. I don’t remember the last time I was teary-eyed or had a lump in my throat at the circulation desk. Probably, never. Not until it was Bara’a’s turn.
It would have been “Dayenu” at this point but there was one more part of our day. Meredith had to leave, but my husband, Andy, replaced her, and the two of us drove Bara’a home. Her husband and children were waiting outside and greeted us warmly. Words are superfluous when there is a good, strong handshake, and they invited us for tea and coffee in their tiny second-floor apartment. The kids devoured the books. With the tiniest fingers, they pointed to numbers and words they could not understand. But I’m quite certain that in 28 days, when the books are due back at the library, the children will know how to count and recite their ABCs.
The Talmud doesn’t mention that a library card, the sweetest tea, the most bitter coffee and the tiniest fingers on mysterious books can save a life and save the world. Maybe they’re right. But if the rabbis were in Elizabeth with Meredith, Andy and me, and with Bara’a and her family, they would surely agree that these moments changed the lives of their entire family.
Merrill Silver in an ESL teacher at Jewish Vocational Services of Metro-
West in East Orange, N.J.