New Language Kindles Hope

John, Marlene, and Philomena Malty

Two years ago, John and Marlene Malty were attending Easter Sunday services when Islamic extremists set off a bomb in their church, killing 24 people.

The Maltys are from Alexandria, Egypt, where Christians are regularly targeted by terrorists, especially where large groups are gathered during religious services. John said that over the last several years the situation in Egypt was becoming more and more difficult for Christians. The Maltys decided to go to Marlene’s father, and seek asylum in the United States.

Marlene’s father worked with a commercial shipping company and lived in New York before moving to Norman, N.C. where he has lived for the past 26 years. John, Marlene, and their young daughter Philomena stayed with Marlene’s father until John could get on his feet financially. In the meantime, they joined a church in Raleigh, retained a lawyer who specializes in immigration law, and enrolled in classes to improve their English. Their primary language is Arabic.

John and Marlene now live in Candor and study English as a Second Language at Montgomery Community College.

“We learned English in high school but if we don’t use it, we forget how to speak it,” said John.

John owned and operated a tourist business and had the opportunity to speak English and Russian through his job. Marlene was an architectural engineer for a construction company out of Cairo and had little need to speak English.

Vanessa McIntyre, the Malty’s English instructor, speaks no Arabic and so the three have fun translating for each other with simple phrases and gestures.

“John has a good knowledge of English,” said Vanessa. “If I can find a synonym for a word he’s never heard of, he can figure it out and then translates it for Marlene,” she said.

The classes they are taking involve a lot of reading which helps build vocabulary skills.

“All the time you hear, see, and read. Every day you learn new words,” said John.

Marlene says she wants to learn more so she can work. John said that the lack of English skills stops her from being able to do the most ordinary tasks like shopping for groceries.

“You want to connect with people and without the language, you can’t,” said John.

It’s hard to imagine the isolation experienced by individuals who don’t have English language skills. Marlene made it clear when she said, “I don’t have any friends. I can’t make connections because I can’t speak the language.”

That’s a sad truth, but Marlene isn’t looking for sympathy, as she and John are very positive about learning English, which they seem to be doing very quickly. Marlene’s limited English is very grammatical and she understands English very well. John’s English is more “broken” but he exercises a much larger vocabulary along with a wonderful sense of humor.

John talks about how he and Marlene met. John’s cousin and Marlene were friends in college at Thebes Academy in Cairo. His cousin introduced them and it was kismet.

“My cousin introduced us, and that was the end,” John said. He paused and looked sideways at Marlene and said it again with emphasis. “The END!” Marlene gave him a look of mock dismay and they began to laugh.

He told the story about Marlene's first attempt at cooking. She made him a cake but forgot the flour.

"It was a pan-cake," he said. (Ba-DUM tsshh!)

When asked how he and Marlene originally came to the United States from Egypt John said, "We drove." (Ba-DUM tsshh!)

John is now working as a cashier in a convenience store. He says that English comes in handy but nodding and smiling helps, too.

“People in the store ask me, ‘Why do you smile all the time?’ When I don’t understand what they are saying I just nod and smile a lot, but I don’t tell them that. I just say, ‘I smile for all my customers,’” John said.

John's sense of humor seems to help him cope with the seriousness of his situation. His family has found hope for a better life in the U.S. with the freedom to practice their Christian faith without fear. They are making a place for themselves by learning English.

“I want to encourage others to learn English and maybe one day it will save their life. What I learned has helped my family survive here. They should learn about Christianity because people don’t know about it and that makes me sad. They don’t have an idea how the people suffer for their faith, for their religion,” John said.

John said the reason he and Marlene learn English is to live, and that people shouldn’t be afraid to come to MCC to learn.

“You should be more afraid not to learn. That’s why we do it. To live. We can’t survive without it,” he said.

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