Borscht and baked potatoes were on everyone’s lunch menu in my native land of Belarus. Everyone who had such a lunch was fair-skinned and spoke Russian. A few years later, as I stood in the lunch line with my kindergarten class in a Brooklyn elementary school, I realized things were no longer that simple. My classmates ranged from those kids with pale skin and large blue eyes to those with rich chocolate skin and voluminous hair. The food choices were almost as diverse as the students. In front of me was a bewildering array of foods I couldn’t even name in my native language. Fearing that I would pick out something repulsive, I desperately tried to ask the boy in front of me for a recommendation. To my dismay, between us stood the barrier of language.
Although my kindergarten experience feels like a century ago, the lessons I learned will be etched in my heart forever.
For the past three summers, I have worked in Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein’s district office. Constituents – much like the overwhelmed little girl in the lunch line – flooded her office seeking help. I often had to be an interpreter for the Russian-speaking ones. As I served the role of vital communication link, I was reminded of my desperate struggle to converse before I learned English. I watched with great empathy as elderly Russians tried to hold a conversation in Russian with people who did not speak it. It was suddenly very clear to me how lucky I was to be fluent in two languages.
In New York, a multicultural city, students like me are blessed with an opportunity to work with a diverse population. I have been fortunate to have a job in this assemblywoman’s office. In the midst of my English to Russian translations, I’ve learned about social programs I didn’t know existed. I found out that SCRIE (Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption) helps seniors keep up with the rising cost of living and HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program) is a tremendous aid to low-income families. This work expanded my mind in ways that are impossible inside the four walls of a classroom.
Nonetheless, waking up on those hot summer mornings, I sometimes wished to pull on a bathing suit and head to the beach rather than don a tailored skirt and head to work. Once I actually got there, I was constantly reminded of the quote, “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” My problems seemed trivial compared to the issues many of these people faced.
On one occasion, a Russian woman in her seventies brought in a letter that was clearly an eviction notice, having no idea how her life was about to change. I ended up being more than an interpreter – someone she could confess her worries and pains to. After the staff made some phone calls, we discovered that this notice was a mistake. I felt immense satisfaction seeing the joy in her eyes when I delivered the good news.
Walking through the streets of Brooklyn today, I am no longer bewildered by this city’s unique sounds and smells. Instead, I embrace its diversity. I can’t imagine living anywhere else and am certain that the knowledge I’ve acquired working for Assemblywoman Weinstein will positively contribute to my life journey.
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