Maplewood resident Laura Ciolkowski and Montclair resident Jennifer Friedin have full, rich lives. They each have two teenage children and thriving careers. Ciolkowski is a professor of Literature at Columbia University and Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Friedin is a personal trainer working with individual clients and small groups in their homes.
As though their plates weren’t full enough, Ciolkowski and Friedin sought to make a difference locally. The two friends recently co-hosted a Syria Supper Club in Maplewood. These ongoing monthly fundraising dinners in the homes of local New Jersey residents offer refugees from Syria and Iraq an opportunity to acclimate to the community, meet American friends and establish cultural exchange.
“There is an enormous amount of passion and energy in our community to support these families in their own efforts to get what they need,” says Ciolkowski. “What we learned from them is that, in order to build a new life in New Jersey, this community needs to develop their English language skills.”
And so the work began. Headed by Ciolkowski and Friedin, a team of eager volunteers reached out to administrators and librarians at the Elizabeth Public Library to organize regular English language tutoring. Tutoring sessions in the public library also offer opportunities for the refugees to get out and connect with others in the community, and move beyond the hardships of life as a refugee.
And while language is important, the work is about more than just language. “In some ways, language tutoring is also the occasion for learning more about how to support our new neighbors in their efforts to build a new life,” said Ciolkowski.
For example, the Syrians at Ciolkowski and Friedin’s dinner expressed the need for computers. With such a big part of today’s resources available online, computer access is key.
With the simple availability of a computer, refugees can access online job postings, their children can complete homework and research projects and they can take advantage of online language programs like Rosetta Stone, many of which are free to library card holders. Through small efforts by caring volunteers, huge steps are being made to support many refugees who are working to gain back some affirmation of their talents and dignity.
There are tutoring programs and other opportunities to help throughout New Jersey. Ciolkowski’s daughter, Kate, a sophomore at Columbia High School, tutors Syrian refugees at the Roselle Public Library. For more information on how you can lend a hand either by volunteering or donating a used computer, email [email protected].