This month’s volunteer spotlight features Ron Nenner, who serves as an English tutor in our Forward program.
To potential volunteers, he says: “The only thing you need as a teacher is patience, a forward look, and a smile on your face. It’s very rewarding to get out of your comfort zone, help someone and their family, and then see them progress.” Enjoy his interview below.
Q: How did you first get involved with New American Pathways?
A: Last September, I heard a sermon from a young rabbi at my synagogue who talked about Clarkston and the refugees living there and was really enthused, so I looked around to see how I could get involved. There were a few organizations that I signed up for, but I went to New American Pathways first and was very pleased with the people that I met and the introduction that they gave me to teaching refugees, so I signed up with New AP.
Q: How have you seen Abdul grow as a new American and as a student?
A: Abdul is quite an interesting gentleman. He’s 62 years old and he’s from Myanmar. He’s Rohingya but lived in Thailand for quite a number of years after he fled Myanmar and travelled around Asia. He can speak three or four different languages – Thai, Bengali, Urdu – and a little bit of Lao. Even though he knew how to speak all of those languages, English was more or less foreign to him, so we started from the very beginning.
I had to have a lot of patience, and so did he, while he learned the alphabet, words, pronunciation and how to write. Little by little he continued to get better and better. He has a difficulty speaking because of a stroke that he got during his first month in the U.S., but we’ve worked around it.
Sometimes I think that I’m getting just as much out of it as he is, seeing him progress from week to week, month to month. It’s really amazing.
Q: How has your relationship with him grown and evolved as he’s become more fluent?
A: He always calls me “sir” and “teacher” – and “teacher” is a very respected term in his culture. I’ve become more of a mentor to him, and we trust each other. We’ve become friends as I’ve helped him move forward. I kind of look after him, and we talk about all the things he’s done in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Malaysia and India.
He’s very unique in what he’s done, and I don’t think that I could do anything that he’s gone through. He’s worked on skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, he’s sold food from a cart in Chiang Mai in Thailand. He’s quite a gentleman and he’s very unique. He told me that his goal is to get a Green Card, become a citizen and bring his three children here from Bangladesh. He wants them to have opportunities that are not possible in Myanmar.
Q: How is your work important to you personally?
A: I think that Americans would have an awakening if they would only take time to get to know where people came from and get to know the people that are trying to come here. If they met the wonderful people that are already here after going through a process of two, five, even ten years, I think that they would learn to accept and embrace these people as Americans.
It’s unfortunate that, in these times with such rhetoric opposed to immigration, [people are] opposed to refugees coming here. Everyone deserves a chance. My grandparents were immigrants coming to the U.S. from Russia and Eastern Europe, and I feel fortunate to live in such a wonderful country with so many opportunities. To shut the door on people being able to move here and be citizens is very unfortunate.
Q: What would you say to people who are interested in volunteering in this field?
A: My background was not in teaching. I was a pilot in the Air Force for a long time and then I worked in marketing at a large electronics firm for two decades and I never had any experience teaching. I was very hesitant to take a step in that direction, but I learned that if you step out of your comfort zone, people will accept you and will be very appreciative.
We took Abdul to the New AP picnic a month ago or so, and he really enjoyed it. The next time I had a lesson with him, the family that Abdul stays with surprised me with a big lunch. They dressed up and treated me like a king, and it was really so sweet, it made me feel very special. There are great opportunities to help other people, it only takes a couple of hours a week to do, and the rewards are really significant for yourself, your family and your community.
We thank Ron for his dedication and for taking the time to share his story. If you are interested in volunteering as an English tutor, check our calendar for the next volunteer orientation. We offer English training after our general volunteer orientation.