The Journey

An Unlikely Bond Emerges between Tutor and Refugee
By Megan Rieger

Personal essay

From the moment I saw Nadezhda Shumkov's dining room centerpiece, I knew I found a kindred spirit. The silk leaves and plastic gourds revealed us to be die-hard seasonal decorators who frequented the same JoAnn fabric store. Nearly twice my age and from the opposite side of the globe, this Russian refugee and I formed an unlikely bond during the time we spent together as we prepared her to become a U.S. citizen.

I tutored Nadezhda for her citizenship test through a Whitworth service learning experience known as the Bonner Leaders program. Two times a week, we reviewed the big names and dates of U.S. history. But the scarf-donned Nadezhda did not need a tutor. She had an entire translated version of the test, had dutifully completed all "homework" and correctly spelled all 13 original colonies by her second attempt. Long past retirement age, she embraced her test studies with gusto. Gradually, I began to see her not as a gray-haired grandmother of 25 children, but as a scholar like myself, working to drill knowledge into memory.

Language differences represented the greatest schism between us, yet our love for reading in our respective languages forged a book club-like comradery. We talked about the books we were reading while she shyly shared how she spoke English better than she read it. I did not tell her that Warren Peace, a student concert named in honor of a campus dorm, had no relation to the Tolstoy epic.

The Bible was Nadezdha's favorite book. A painting of Jesus was the prominent feature in her living room. But Nadezdha's commitment to Christianity came at a much higher price than mine. Her husband was beaten when the couple refused to enroll their children in the public school, where communist propaganda and religious bigotry was the norm. Such incidents of religious persecution led the family to apply for refugee status, where ultimately life started over in Spokane, Wash.

Never satisfied with her progress on the test, Nadezhda's forehead crinkled whenever I pointed out any little mistake. She never failed to double check the sentences I dictated, ensuring that she literally dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't'.

"You are a very good student," I would tell her.
"No, bad student," she would counter, and this exchange repeated itself every tutoring session. How could I make her believe in herself? Even as I sought for a solution, I fought the same perfectionist expectations. I lacked self confidence and feared a wrong decision would set me in for a star-crossed destiny. We were women with inner demons as critics.

During our last tutoring session, Nadezhda presented me with a set of hand-painted Russian nesting dolls called matrioshka. These five navy-outfitted sisters were adorned by pink petals and highlighted with intricate gold designs. These mementoes of Nadezhda's homeland now stand in my doll casailure. Once again, my reassurance of her success was answered with a protest. I hugged her goodbye and hoped she would not intimidate herself during the questioning.

Seven years after her arrival to the States, Nadezhda took her oath of allegiance as a new citizen. I donned red, white and blue and traveled to the Spokane County Courthouse to witness the ceremony. A photograph taken that day shows Nadezhda beaming by my side, clutching an American flag. Our five-month journey together had birthed another similarity between us – gratitude for the rights and liberties that come with U.S. citizenship.

Nadezhda proved to be a storybook Russian – morose and resolute. Even after her triumph over the Department of Homeland Security grilling, she continued to insist she was a "bad student." Through Nadezhda, I saw how overachievement acted as a cover-up for our lack of self-assurance. We were two outwardly steady women rocking in self-doubt.