Laurie Burnham had the unusual experience of teaching fourth grade in a private girls’ school in Dubai. She went to a job fair in Boston and selected Dubai “strictly for the money.”
When interviewed at the job fair, religion was not brought up. The only other time it was mentioned was for the work visa, and she indicated that she was “agnostic.”
Initially committing to a three-year contract, when the U.S. Embassy there closed, she made the choice to return home after just one year.
Burnham is a native Atlantan who earned her bachelor’s degree from Emerson College. She also holds a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix, and a specialist degree from Lincoln Memorial University.
Since beginning her teaching career in 2004, Burnham has taught every elementary grade, including English as a Second Language.
When asked about the attitude of the students there, vis-a-vis their interest in learning and self-improvement, she explained, “The girls seemed to have lived in a bubble where everything had been thought out and provided for them. Many of the girls had nannies and treated them deplorably. There is very much a hierarchy of the lack of humanity shown those who come there looking for work. Later, some of the students did become interested in learning and growing.”
Perhaps the parents didn’t necessarily want to educate the girls since they would be married off to wealthy families? “I was told the school was ‘college preparatory,’ but found many of my fourth-graders to be reading on a second-grade level. Very early on I was called into the principal’s office and told that the parents were complaining that my standards were too high. I then was balancing whether to teach or babysit. … I chose the former and I went ahead and taught.”
She found initially that the girls did not have what Americans would call “good manners.” She recalled on her first days of teaching, one of the girls handed her a water bottle and said, “Open this.” She established very quickly that “Please” and “thank you,” and “would you please” were needed before she would even attempt to help. They did, indeed, change.
During her breaks and free time, Burnham went to other countries such as Turkey, Italy and Spain. On weekends in the city, she typical explored Dubai and did “tourist things.”
She never sought out other Jews; but she did light Shabbat candles (tea candles from Ikea), watch the live stream of the services from Ahavath Achim Synagogue, and fast for Yom Kippur.
Burnham was modest there in her dress and covered her shoulders. She wore pants or jeans and only donned a headscarf when going into a mosque. When she went out for the “brunch scene,” which was akin to a nightclub experience, she covered her shoulders.
She recounted a particularly bothersome interchange: “The word ‘Israel’ was crossed out on the globes and maps. The non-Emirates had to take an Arab class, and they wanted the students to locate Palestine on the map, which didn’t exist. I addressed it with the teacher and told her if she wanted that to be the assignment, then she needed to provide them with the answer, because most of the world recognizes Israel, not Palestine. Side note: She believed that during Jesus’ resurrection, he would kick all the Jews out and claim it for the Muslims. I politely explained those were not Christian tenets.”
When asked what she missed most about the U.S., she responded, “The grocery stores for one, the mere selection we have in the U.S. The basic freedoms we all take for granted. The customer service. Their favorite saying was ‘inshallah,’ which means G-d willing. As I pointed out once when the bank didn’t transfer my money, G-d has nothing to do with the fact my money hasn’t arrived. I can’t explain it, but there was very much a repressed energy or vibe.”
Burnham summed up her year in Dubai, saying, “I am grateful for the experience. I believe every American should live abroad to experience other cultures and have an appreciation of the freedoms we take for granted every day. I was blessed to find a lifelong friend from my experience. And we regret what we don’t do in our lives, not the experiences we have. It gave me the opportunity to travel, as well, and those memories I treasure.”