December 18, 2014

Based on Love

by Sara Winnick ’15

Sara is one of six student coordinators of Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment, a refugee tutoring program that matches Brown students with refugee students in Providence.  She has worked with BRYTE as a tutor for four years.  This was her second semester as a coordinator.

BRYTE is a service model based on love.  It asks: what happens when you pair a college student with a recently arrived refugee—ask them to become a tutor, to commit to three hours a week, every week, in the tutee’s home, for at least one year?  What would it do for the tutee?  What would it do for the tutor? It does not require love, but more often than not, love is what forms. 

BRYTE has a leadership structure based on love.  Our coordinating contract reads “Be open and clear about needed personal and organizational support from fellow Coordinators.”  We sign our emails “with love;” end our meetings with hugs.  The six of us hold equal weight in all organization decisions.  We spend an average of five hours a week in each other’s company, in between communicating constantly over email and group text. During one especially rough BRYTE week in November, three of us cried in the Rock lobby; the other three rubbed our backs.  We love each other and we love the work we do. It is not possible to do it any other way.

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On November 1st, at BRYTE Halloween, Aisha* sat by herself and waited for her siblings to arrive.  “They’re at K-mart” she told me.  I coaxed her to the mummy wrap game, tried to inspire pumpkin painting, offered extra m&ms for participation in the cookie-face contest.

When Aisha’s sister and her sister’s tutor arrived, they told stories of a new TV that arrived broken in the box, purchased with $600 saved carefully over months and months—a dollar here, a few dollars there—by Aisha’s mother, Bina.  Through gritted teeth the sister and tutor recounted the past hour and a half spent trying to exchange it at the store. The tutor acted as interpreter—not translating between Swahili and English (she doesn't speak Swahili) but between white privilege and black poverty.  “Bina was standing right there,” said the tutor after the event ended.  “And the clerk only talked to me.”

When I got home from Halloween I took a nap, dreaming of candy and broken televisions, picturing Aisha’s withdrawn face and her former tutor Vera, a close friend of mine, who graduated last spring and moved to Paris.

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There are times, as a coordinator, when I am reminded of the overwhelming structural barriers facing newly arrived refugee families:  When I hear of a teenage tutee waking up at six in the morning to get her siblings ready for school or a ten year-old filling out SNAP benefit forms.  When BRYTE families relocate to Ohio or Kansas in pursuit of higher quality of life.

As community events coordinator, I spent a lot of my time with BRYTE this year organizing a park day, Halloween party, and Thanksgiving potluck.  It often felt crazy to glimpse structural poverty and spend twenty-five hours planning cupcake decorating and pumpkin painting in response. I am sure that on November 1, Aisha needed more than cookie-face contests and mummy wrap races. But on November 1, cookies and mummies were what we had.

BRYTE cannot, and will not, fix the challenges facing refugee families. BRYTE can, and will, continue to build meaningful relationships between people who could have easily gone their whole lives without meeting.  It will continue to be run by Brown students who believe deeply in the work they do, who value commitment, tutoring, and mentorship. Aisha has been a part of BRYTE for 5 years. Although Aisha is not my tutee, I’ve known her for 2, since I worked at BRYTE Summer Camp in 2013.  Aisha’s older sister and my current tutee’s older sister are close friends; Aisha and my tutee talk on Facebook chat after school.  I know that Aisha’s former tutor Vera, living in Paris, deeply misses and loves Aisha.  I know that Aisha misses and loves her back.

In the past four years, I’ve learned that BRYTE is more than a tutoring program or a single relationship between me and my tutee.  BRYTE is a community that has love and reciprocity as its core. And if love manifests in cupcakes and pumpkins, I will not deny the power in that.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of our tutors and families.

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