Schenectady

Foss: Reconnecting with my Guyanese student

Suenietawattie Singh, of Schenectady, a Guyanese immigrant inside her client's home at Schaffer Heights in Schenectady last week
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Suenietawattie Singh, of Schenectady, a Guyanese immigrant inside her client's home at Schaffer Heights in Schenectady last week

Suenietawattie Singh greets me with a cheerful hello, then turns to the hot stovetop where she’s tending a small pot of boiling potatoes.

“This is for my client,” Singh explains, with a nod toward the lunch she’s preparing. “I do everything for him.”

I haven’t seen Singh since late 2017, but she’s in the same place I last left her: Schaffer Heights Senior Apartments, where she cares for a homebound older man as part of her job as a home health aide.

Singh moved to Schenectady from Guyana in 2012, after a brief stint with relatives in New York City and New Jersey.

Her life in the Electric City hasn’t always been easy, and it’s taken some unexpected twists and turns.

One constant has been her job, which has provided financial stability for her and far-flung family members, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose. She is dedicated and loyal to her client, who is also Guyanese, and a hard and diligent worker – a natural caregiver.

In December, a severe case of COVID-19 landed Singh in the hospital for 13 days, and though she is still noticeably weary and complains of lingering symptoms, she was back at work within three weeks of her diagnosis.

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“I love this job,” says Singh, 52. “I love the people. Today I came to work, and I was not 100% the way I want to feel, but my client looks out for me. He is very kind-hearted.”

I met Singh about six or seven years ago, as a volunteer for Literacy New York Greater Capital Region, a non-profit organization that teaches adults to learn to read and write.

Once a week, we met for about an hour – sometimes at the downtown branch of the Schenectady County Public Library, sometimes at Schaffer Heights – to review letters and words.

Singh’s formal education ended in childhood, after the death of her father at the age of seven, and I wish I could say my instruction was a great success, but it wasn’t: she still struggles with reading and writing, and it seems unlikely that will change.

I’ve met many Guyanese immigrants and people of Guyanese descent while reporting for The Daily Gazette, but none of them have made a bigger impression on me than Singh.

We spent a lot of time together, and listening to her talk about her life gave me a better understanding of the challenges and joys that come with moving to a foreign country.

Singh moved to Schenectady to be near family, and the city has become her home.

“In Schenectady, I can breathe free,” she told me. “The air is a good air here.”

She has friends, a place to live and a job, and before the pandemic she attended church regularly and enjoyed eating out, going for walks and buying gifts to send to her grandchildren, who live in Guyana and on the island of Trinidad.

An ongoing source of stress is housing.

In her nine years in Schenectady, Singh has lived in seven different apartments, and when I met with her last week she was moving out of a house on Bridge Street where she had lived since October because the property had been sold.

She is also haunted by a childhood defined by trauma – the death of a parent and sexual abuse – and an abusive marriage she left behind in Guyana.

“Sometimes I feel the pain,” she said. “I struggle with that.”

I tutored Singh until shortly before my son was born in 2018, and until last week it had been several years since I had seen her.

Renewing our bond was extremely gratifying, and with the distance of time has come insight that eluded me when I was trying to teach her.

Our sessions and relationship, I now understand, were always about so much more than literacy, and we really did learn quite a bit from each other.

I’m also struck by Singh’s tortoise-like perseverance – her ability to carry on, despite her difficulties.

She is content and comfortable, even grateful, in a city that has welcomed her and provided opportunities unavailable in her small Guyanese village.

“I don’t miss Guyana,” she said. “I came to America, and God helped me to stay here.”

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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Categories: News, Opinion, Sara Foss, Schenectady County

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