How to Keep Going
By Andrew O’Grady
Deep in the fashion district of New York City is a large scenic brick building with exquisite architecture and attractive design. The buiding houses the Center for Worker Education (CWE), which provides education for workers within New York. The CWE offers a variety of classes for many who are not native English speakers, allowing them to succeed in the workplace.
The students of this English as a Second Language class were courteous, kindhearted, and caring, and it was easy to be captured by the sense of shared community. They all seemed to relate to one another and understand one another, as if they all shared some secret that they couldn’t tell or explain.
One of the most intriguing and interesting students was a woman named Maha Allawh. Maha is a middle age woman with smooth glossy black hair and a delightful, Cheshire smile that was both inviting and comforting. When she spoke, she exuded elegance and delicacy. Although what attracted me to Maha the most was her incredible story of immigration to America, and the story of hardships she faced and endured trying to integrate and fit into American culture.
Maha comes from Amman, Jordan and in 1994, arrived in the United States with her newlywed husband. Maha explained that when her and her husband married he promised to take her to America. Maha continued to tell the class that this made her very happy and joyous because she said America is the country of freedom. Explaining she was happy to go to America because in America there is no oppression and one can express their political opinion without persecution or pursuit.
When Maha and her husband arrived in Brooklyn, on Baybridge Avenue. Maha explained her transition from Jordan to the U.S. wasn’t easy and rather difficult. She spoke no English when she arrived and had to leave her entire family behind including her mother whom she dearly loved. Maha explained as she choked backed tears, “I cried everyday for six months because I missed my family so much.”
Maha’s husband was able to get jobs in different factories and work to keep Maha and himself afloat. Despite the language barrer, Maha started to look for work to distract her from missing her family. She shortly found a desk job at a shipping company and worked behind a computer. This job would only be for a short time because Maha would soon become pregnant.
Expecting her first child, Rawan, Maha quit her job because she wanted to stay at home. Maha would later have two more kids: Matthew, who is now 15, and Christine, now 17, and about to go to college.
Maha joined the Salem Lutheran Church and became an active member. She said she she loves working with her church and enjoys being a member of such a loving community.
Then came September, 11, 2001. Maha explained that she and other the Arabic people heard a lot of hatred and obscenities. She said that people didn’t understand that not all Arabic people were bad or terrorist. Maha then said that in response to this hatred that she and her church formed a unity task force, in which all-religious minorities could gather together and pray in peace without hatred or judgment. Hence, Maha, because of this work received many awards from senates and government officials. She was widely praised for her work trying to bridge communities. Also as Maha explained these events one could see a sort of fire or passion in her eye. One could tell she was very passionate about being accepted as an Arab and not a terrorist and wanted equality for all people.
In addition to her work with the church Maha would volunteer at many hospitals and police stations. She would also enjoy two years at college and receive training in Medical Office and Administration.
Maha also has battled breast cancer. With tears forming in the creases of her eyes told how in 2012 she was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. Maha was shocked and had no idea what to do. She called her husband in tears and was scared for her life and scared for the future of her kids.
Maha said that she didn’t want to keep this a secret that according to “Jordan culture” when something like this happens you don’t keep it a secret and you share it with you entire family. So when she told her kids they were in disbelief, but they soon came to grasp the reality of the situation and encouraged her through this difficult time. Each one of Maha’s children eased her by explaining that stage one is curable and they would get passed this difficult time. Maha then with tears filled in eyes explained how she had to tell her mother the news. Maha explained that her mother prayed everyday for her. Maha continued to tell us, as she was trying to suppress the crackle in her voice and fighting back the tears that started to come on more strongly, that her mother passed away two months later. This proved to be an even more difficult experience for Maha considering how close she was with her mother.
Maha forged on with her life story continued to explain that she had to then had to undergo chemotherapy. With this Maha, told the class, she decided to change her lifestyle. She wanted a more positive lifestyle and wanted to surround herself with encouraging people and things. So Maha stop listening to the news and started meditation, stop hanging out with a friend who would only fill her head with negative thoughts, and went to her chemo treatments with a smile on her face everyday. Also as a result to chemo Maha lost all her hair and so she went out to buy wigs in order to make herself feel better, but when she got home to show her family her son was not amused. Matthew, her son, told her that she doesn’t need to wear a wig and “be ashamed of her sickness.” Mathew, according to Maha, there was no need for her newly purchased wigs and shaved his head to support her. Maha as a result of this encouragement would never use a single wig and would wind up donating them.
Currently Maha is cancer free and is on medication. She appeared on CBS news in order to encourage women who are suffering from breast cancer and undergoing chemo. She explained on CBS that “cancer is not scary and you have to be strong.” Maha wanted to encourage womaen and give them hope because she knows how difficult this time can be.
Overall from Maha’s life journey we can see an emerging message of perseverance and persistence. Maha would later tell me that “Life is hard, but if you know how to deal with it you’ll be fine.” Basically saying that life has a lot of bumps and bruises, but it’s about learning how to deal with those bruises rather than avoiding them.