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Immigrants Will Teach Free 'Open Air University' In Prospect Park This Summer

Dashed Arrow Bianca Nelson, Courtesy of the Prospect Park Alliance

A while back, officials at Brooklyn Public Library hit on an idea. Why not provide the public with free courses outdoors, in the summer, on the lush lawns of Prospect Park?

The initiative is called University Open Air, and when it launches on June 11th all of the instructors will be immigrants.

“Only nature sees us, so it's unbelievably corny but I love that layer of it,” said Laszlo Jakab Orsos, the vice president of art and culture at the library and an immigrant himself, from Hungary.

He said the program is designed for a particular kind of New Yorker, one who's interested not just in new subject matter but in the lives of others.

“How many times [has] it happened to you when it turned out that person who is serving you is actually from Russia, and he or she is an actor or actress?” asked Orsos. “Or a writer? Or a former politician? Or how many times [has] it happened in the back of the cab?”

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Laszlo Jakab Orsos (Arun Venugopal / Gothamist / WNYC)

One of the instructors they've lined up is Asma Thabet, an actress and theater instructor from Tunisia, who has a Master’s degree in theater and psychodrama. When she arrived in the U.S. in 2017, she found work waiting tables at a Lebanese restaurant in Hackensack

“I never worked the hard job before,” said Thabet, laughing.

Listen to Arun Venugopal's report on WNYC:

She grew up in a wealthy family in Tunisia, where she was a controversial personality. Her work as an actress and human rights activist, she said, was demeaned and her morality called into question by Islamists.

For nearly 5 years, Thabet taught in the city of Kairouan, a hub of extremism. Her students, she said, were those living on the margins: they were young people coping with drug addiction and sexual harassment.

“Those students, they love me, and for them, I was like a mom... a sister.”

Thabet grew emotional talking about her life as a teacher. She missed the sense of purpose, the bond between student and teacher, so she's thankful to have an opportunity to teach again. At University Open Air she’ll lead a workshop in improvised theater.

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Asma Thabet (Arun Venugopal / Gothamist / WNYC )

Joining her on the faculty will be a poet from Taiwan, a construction engineer from Nigeria and a linguist from Tajikistan. They'll all be on the grass, and in case you were wondering, they'll all be paid.

Nadia Batool Bokhari will be teaching a course on women in Islam. In Pakistan, she was a journalist, a highly visible one, and she often misses that life.

“I was very outspoken and very publicly open to my fans,” said Bokhari, “Right now nobody knows me. Sometimes I feel, 'Okay, Relax, relax.'”

Bokhari and the other instructors are all in varying stages of finding their place, their role in American society, and figuring out if their expertise will translate into a livelihood here.

Thabet has good reason to believe it has. She just quit her job as a waitress to take a role at the Access Theater Blackbox, downtown.

In New York, Thabet said she feels valued as an artist.

“I feel that it's my city,” she said. “There is many people from many places. It's like a moral contract between them. They came from other country, and they decide to be in this city, and they respect this rule to have a good life."

University Open Air is a joint project of Brooklyn Public Library and the Prospect Park Alliance, and begins June 11th at the former Rose Garden in Prospect Park. It is free and open to the public. For more information call 718-230-2021 or go here.

Arun Venugopal is a reporter who focuses on issues of race and immigration at WNYC. You can follow him on Twitter at @arunNYC.

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