On a hot May day, Sissy Hoffman gets out of the car with a bag of goodies.
In one hand she holds a basket with peanuts, and in the other she has blackberries. But before she can regain her composure, a toddler comes out of the house shouting Bibi, or grandma.
She and the young child embrace.
Sharing a smile, Hoffman says it’s the best job she’s had since retiring. “When I retire, I want to work with refugee children,” she said. “It really is the crowning glory.”
Hoffman, 70, spent nine months helping an Afghan refugee family adjust to life in America through the Inspiritus First Families mentorship program. The program includes teaching English, exposure to American customs and necessities, and providing instruction on how to complete daily tasks such as composing an email.
Inspiritus is a non-profit organization that provides people whose lives have been disrupted with resources and basic needs to help them readjust to their community. The agency also provides refugees with resettlement efforts such as obtaining housing, employment, and legal services through their refugee services.
Born and raised in Savannah, Hoffman taught for 40 years before retiring in 2018. Previously, she taught in California and worked with special education and immigrant students.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher since second grade when they let us go and read to the younger ones,” she said. “I enjoyed that.”
In 1996, she had only six months left to live after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, but she is still here and continues to serve her community.
Hoffman said three events in her life inspired her to serve: the Holocaust, World War II and the Vietnam War. She said her family members fled Europe during the Holocaust.
“They were refugees, and many of them perished in the Holocaust. Those who survived were helped by people unknown to them.
During her second year of teaching in 1971, she remembers the last group of Vietnamese refugees who came to America to escape the war. This sparked her interest in helping new Americans, so she taught them English as a second language. When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in the fall of 2021, she felt a desire to serve again.
“Working with people in need for whatever reason was the way of life and the way I was raised.”
Hoffman is the mentor of a family of five children: three boys and two girls. She said the family came to the Savannah area in September.
Greeting each other with hugs is how Hoffman and his family show love. Her grandchildren live in Washington DC, while the children’s grandparents are in Afghanistan.
“I call them my grandchildren and they call me grandma. They called me Bibi (which translates to lady of rank) and they hugged me around my legs,” she said.
She said their father worked as an interpreter for the United States. The father speaks English, Pashto and Dari. Two of the older children also speak some English.
“This is my first experience (of working with an Afghan family),” Hoffman said. “The kids are so cute, and the mother wearing the customary headscarf hugged me…she cried…thinking about what she went through (leaving Kabul airport).”
An Afghan teenager, Amin, calls Hoffman Grandma because of the love she shared while helping her family adjust to American culture. Amin remembers going to a local Kroger for the first time to buy groceries and apply for a job. When the teenager was struggling in school, Hoffman helped him with his grades.
“She helped us a lot, she’s kind and honest,” he said. “She helped us with everything and we appreciate it.”
In March, Amin and his siblings attended their first St. Patrick’s Day festival in Savannah. He also enjoyed learning Savannah street names and visiting local museums to learn about American culture.
“We are Americans now,” he said.
Marwa and Farahnaz said their favorite activity was buying birthday supplies such as cakes, decorations and dresses. The two girls also enjoyed going to Lake Mayer to feed the ducks while eating pizza and a Pepsi.
A few months ago, Hoffman, along with the staff and students of Coastal Middle School, collected 300 preschool and early reading books for Afghan refugees. She said the goal is to teach literacy skills.
“Wherever you are is your library,” she said.
Now she helps children enroll in the Savannah-Chatham Schools EMBRACESummer program, which is designed to help students catch up on topics they may have missed during the school year. Recently, Farahnaz was accepted into a marine science summer program at Georgia Southern University.
She’s excited to get on the boat for the first time, but Hoffman wants to join in for fun. She will continue to help children and other family members adjust to daily outings and their English skills.
“Look at what I’m doing, it’s beyond anything I could have done in class,” she said.
She said working with English language learners was a dream job before she was forced into retirement, and the last few months were worth it.
“So the surprise of all of this is that I finally got my dream retirement job,” she said. “I work with refugees, but not in the way I originally planned.”