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Grieving through service

The following reflection was written by World Relief Seattle intern, Katherine Abdallah. Katherine joined the team at World Relief during the pandemic, and spent her time assisting the Resettlement Team by scheduling appointments, helping tutor English, building study tools for the citizenship test, and otherwise assisting with the resettlement process under extraordinary circumstances.

“If you want to remember someone, pray to remember them, help the poor to remember them. It shouldn’t matter where she’s buried.”

It was November of 2019 and my Teta (grandmother, pronounced tay-tuh) was in the hospital. She was the strongest person I had ever known in terms of both physical strength and will. Ironically, she was incredibly petite. My mom liked to say she was about the size of a smurf, but because she had such a big personality, it was hard to remember how tiny she was. 

It was even harder to see her in the hospital. A woman who used to walk wherever she needed to go and who could have easily beat me at arm wrestling (a contest I had never dared start with her), was in the hospital battling pneumonia, a hip fracture, and a stroke that had taken most of her speech, all of her mobility, and her ability to swallow. 

My Teta had ten children. Seven of them lived on the west coast and sat in the hospital room to discuss her burial. Inevitably, there was some disagreement on how to handle her final preparations, hence my ammo’s (uncle’s, pronounced ah-mo) statement that it shouldn’t matter where she’s buried. We were sitting in the hospital lobby taking a break from the tension of the hospital room when he reflected on the best ways to honor the dead. As soon as he finished his sentence, I knew that I needed to do something to honor Teta after she passed. 

Five months later, after fighting her hardest and giving us lots of sweet hugs, Teta went on to the place where she can finally get the rest she deserves. I miss her every day, and I try to honor her with every major decision I make. 

One of these major decisions was applying for an internship at World Relief Seattle. Between her death and the time that I applied, I had given a lot of thought to how I would help other people in her honor like my ammo suggested. I wanted to help other people who had been through hardships similar to my Teta’s hardships. She was a Palestinian refugee; she was about ten years old when the United Nations recognized Israel as a nation and violence erupted between Israel and the neighboring Arab nations. Teta had to abandon her home in Gaza and run with her children to relative safety in the Jordanian city of Zarqa. When they moved to Jordan, Jordan offered no path to citizenship for refugees from Gaza Strip, so my family was deprived of legal documents, legal protections and many employment opportunities. This was in addition to the violence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and all of the routine discrimination like government checkpoints for Palestinian citizens. 

After scrolling through list after list of nonprofit organizations, I found World Relief Seattle and immediately applied for the refugee resettlement internship. I felt entirely certain that World Relief was where I was supposed to be, and throughout the internship I could feel Teta approving of my decision from heaven. 

My first assignment for the internship was from the ESL team with a short list of students who wanted tutoring. On my list was an elderly, Arabic-speaking woman. Before even calling her, I felt certain that we were made for each other. It just seemed too perfect that I had lost my elderly, Arabic-speaking grandmother and I was getting matched with an elderly, Arabic-speaking student. She and I bonded quickly-during our first tutoring session after I greeted her in Arabic, she said “I like you!” After a couple of weeks, she would end tutoring sessions by telling me that she hoped God gave me every good thing and she would smile at me like Teta used to. It was like Teta was offering affirmation that I was honoring her exactly how she would have wanted me to honor her.

My elderly, Arabic-speaking ESL match told me that she was studying for the citizenship test and she would read parts of her study materials to me during our English practice. This inspired my internship project: creating ESL-friendly Quizlet sets of flashcards for the entire citizenship test, which provided audio, visual, and written tools for studying the test from a computer, laptop, or print.

Quizlet flashcards allow participants to more easily study for the citizenship test.

After I was about 60% done with my project, USCIS announced a new version of the test to take effect one week before my project was scheduled to be completed. The new test replaced the 100 questions with 128 questions and required 12 correct responses instead of 6. The wording of the new test condensed more information into each question, to the point that it was faster and easier to start over than try to edit my old work. I became filled with a sense of urgency to finish a quality project. Any form of the citizenship test is challenging, but knowing that my ESL match had been studying so hard and would now need to learn so much more broke my heart. In the midst of the frustrations at starting a new project, it was rewarding to complete a timely internship project.

Timely is a funny word for the times we’re living in. With the pandemic, presidential election, and every other challenge from this past year, it often feels like nothing is timely, anymore. I can say with certainty that the resettlement internship was timely for me in my phase of grieving. World Relief gave me several special gifts. I was given a platform to explore my family’s heritage as refugees while helping other refugees, opportunities to study the US immigration system, a renewed sense of purpose and passion for helping people, and a large measure of healing. Teta died during the pandemic, shortly after quarantine started, so saying goodbye felt disrupted and incomplete. I feel like I was able to say goodbye to her through service at World Relief. 

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