Saturday, October 6, 2012


It falls to me each year about this time. Others who could do it as well, perhaps better; but each year, it falls to me. While at least four teachers of English-as-a-Foreign-Language at PORTA – the Albania House in Athens are busy welcoming adult students to their classes and orienting them to the year ahead, I have the dubious distinction of giving examinations in our book-lined library. Wannabe students, late arrivals show up with eager hope that this exam will demonstrate that they possess sufficient knowledge of conversational English to place them in an upper level English class. Because they appear after classes are full or during the “drop/add” period, they strive frantically to find a coveted place on our waiting list or, perchance, to score well enough to gain entry in levels two or three.

The filestar (beginner) class is always the most crowded and always the first to exceed the quota. So, each year, students who have only a passing, street-level, acquaintance with English (or less) purport to be “advanced” and strive to prove it on the qualifying exam. At PORTA, as with any educational institution, we have rules and expectations: we have a limited time for registration, a maximum number of students in each class and only two weeks for late entry students to begin classes.

The economic crisis in Greece hits immigrants like these impoverished Albanians first and hardest. Many have lost the two or three part-time jobs they had just a few years ago. Many now have time on their hands. Many see developing a fluency in English as a hedge against the perils of the crisis and a help toward a better job. And, so, in recent Septembers, I have been administering even more placement tests at PORTA. Because we do not charge for these classes, many see them as the “great deal” that they are.
A couple of years ago, when I told Ilir (not his actual name) that there was no room for him in the class, he insisted (Albanians often insist) that “there is always room for one more.” When I said that all chairs in the room were filled, Ilir said, “I’ll bring my own chair!” This year, we have purchased 20 new chairs and now, without doubt, we have no more room.

It is difficult to say “no” to adults who want so anxiously to learn. The unacknowledged messianism which runs beneath much of what I do cries out against ever saying “no.” But I must; for the sake of those recently-admitted to the classes; I must, for the sake of our returning students; I must, for the teachers’ sake; I must, for the sake of acceptable pedagogy! The fire marshal says I must!
While these would-be English students say that they are seeking entry into an English class, you and I know better. We know that their search is actually for something far more fundamental and important than merely fluency in the world’s most popular language. Like Albanian immigrants almost everywhere, they are in search of what, in their native tongue, is referred to as mundesira – opportunity. Repressed and isolated under a dictatorial Communist regime, a desire for mundesira is what led these Albanians to leave their impoverished homeland in the first place. Mundesira accounts for the statistical reality that more Albanians live outside the boundaries of their motherland than within them.

Mundesira is also what has brought us to Athens. Because we are blessed to have it in abundance and so many are not, we have come here out of a fierce compassion and a heavenly obligation to be the presence of Christ among Albanian immigrants. Indeed, it is because, in Jesus Christ, we have discovered God’s love and because that love has opened infinite doors of mundesira for us that we are here, teaching English, giving placement exams and doing a variety of other things through a center named PORTA, which, fittingly, means “door.”
Mundesira, for some may be unevenly distributed or woefully delayed by the pragmatic, human realities of budgetary, time and space limits. Mundesira, at least for now, may be easily limited by one’s English proficiency or the lack thereof. Mundesira is often curtailed by the pressing reality that, as human beings, no one, not even well-intentioned and highly motivated Christian workers, has an unlimited supply of it.

For now, at least, we comsole ourselves by the acknowledgement that the mundesira of God’s unmerited favor is spread without limits to all people who are willing to accept it and live in light of it. And the only placement exam necessary is the willingness to ask for it and to trust God to give it.

1 comment:

Nauplion said...

I am delighted to learn about your organization and the work you are doing in Athens. As a Greek historian [15thC] who writes about Albanians at an earlier period, when they were as much as 1/4-1/3 of the population, I am grateful for your aid. And as a former Baptist, I am grateful for your witness.