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Kenyan immigrant finds joy in teaching her second language to Afghans

Jun. 13, 2014 - 04:37PM   |  
Staff Sgt. Linette Nosim teaches English to Afghan students at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Linette Nosim teaches English to Afghan students at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez/Air Force)
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Almost everything came as a shock that first year in America: Traffic and televisions, machines that washed your dishes and nuked your food, and stores that sold massed-produced merchandise.

Then there was the language with its strange rules and silent letters. Before arriving in Minnesota from Kenya with her family in 1997, 9-year-old Linette Nosim had only ever heard tourists and teachers speak English.

The young Nosim ultimately overcame the loneliness that marked those early months and outlasted the educators who seemed impatient with all her questions.

She mastered the mystifying second language with tutors and summer school and Hooked on Phonics. She joined the Air Force just out of high school.

Now a staff sergeant deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Nosim teaches the language that once stumped her to young Afghan men at a vocational training center on base.

When she first learned about the volunteer opportunity, “I jumped on it right away. I believe it takes a certain amount of patience to teach, especially people from a different culture who speak a different language. Having gone through that, knowing their struggles, it’s definitely the least I can do,” she said.

At Bagram, Nosim works 12 hours a day, six days a week as a traffic management office receiving supervisor for the 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron. She teaches in her rare free time, usually three hours a week. She tells her students to keep doing what they’re doing and not to get discouraged.

“I also get to know [the Afghans] on a different level. We don’t really get to interact with the local nationals too much with my job. To get a face-to-face relationship also attracted me to [the volunteer opportunity],” Nosim said. “It’s very rewarding.”

At the vocational school, which was set up by Koreans, young Afghan men learn trades like welding, automotive, electrical and woodworking. English is part of the instruction.

“The students are eager to learn. They understand after they finish this school, they’ll get a better job and provide a better life for their family and help the country as a whole. They understand the big picture,” Nosim said.

Her own family left Kenya 17 years ago when Nosim’s father, a missionary, was offered a position as a pastor in Minnesota. The United States, the Nosims believed, offered more opportunities.

“I grew up in a village called Kajiado, about four hours away from Nairobi. We lived a very simple life. We had no running water, no electricity,” Nosim said.

She went to a boarding school where the life was in many ways like the military: Students rose at 6 in the morning, ate breakfast, showered and then presented themselves for inspection.

Class didn’t end until 9 p.m., with breaks for lunch, dinner and physical training.

“It wasn’t easy. During droughts there wouldn’t be a lot of food,” Nosim said.

When she learned her family was leaving for the U.S., “part of me was excited. At the same time, I’m leaving my family, my traditions, my culture, everybody I love and know,” she said. “It was really, really hard. Back home, we lived in a community. That’s one of the things I miss the most. When you’re having hard times, everybody helps you out or everybody is going through it with you. I had five female cousins all around the same age. We were raised like sisters. To be split up from them, I really had a hard time with that.”

Only a couple of people in Nosim’s village had a car. The only plane she’d ever seen was in the sky when she boarded a massive jet for her new home.

On her first stopover in Amsterdam, she said, “I remember looking up and trying to take it all in.”

Nosim said she cried herself to sleep most nights that first year. By the time she started a new school in 1998, “I had adjusted, learned the language, the culture, what was normal. I was able to fit in a little bit better.”

She hadn’t met anyone in the Air Force but knew before she started high school that’s what she wanted to do.

She talked to a recruiter as soon as she was old enough.

Nosim wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do in the military — only that the lifestyle appealed to her.

“I knew I wanted to help people,” Nosim said. “I hadn’t quite figured out how.”

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