My experience with refugees

(I’ve taught English at the International Rescue Committee for the last two years, and wrote this for a fundraiser last weekend that raised $2,800 for the ACLU and IRC. I am honored to have been a small part of that fundraiser, and encourage anyone to follow it up with support for these incredible organizations, more important now than ever. And deepest thanks to my friend Jane Bloch who edited and read the piece for me, as I could not attend in person.)


irc-annual-report_web_17jan13_page_031Nasim is in class today. His basic vocabulary and visible pride merge as he tells me about Baghdad before the violence. We agree that when peace comes, and he believes it will, he will show me his city. As always, he presses his hand to his heart in thanks as he leaves.


The family of four from Myanmar sit next to him. The mother and father are improving their English bit by bit, but their two sons, aged 8 and 11, are learning as fast as I can challenge them. They were among the Rohingya “boat people” who fled repeated attacks on Muslims by the Buddhist majority in their country. But as they compete to tell me about the pizza they ate last night, their first, “boat people” is not a concept or a headline, it’s these people. Real people. My neighbors, our community.


Amanuel is a young Eritrean man. He finished a baking certification class this morning and has brought me three fresh pumpkin spice chocolate chip cookies. There is quiet pride in his eyes at having something to give. I think he is slowly-slowly seeing that it’s okay to be gay here. I wish I could express how thankful I am that he’s here. He doesn’t know how much he gives me every day. Or how much he reminds me to be thankful for my own brother’s experience, whose own coming out was accepted with love by our family.


irc-classAnd Shayma is here! She is my best student. Syrian, she started with zero English, not even a shared alphabet, and after just three weeks she’s helping the other Arabic speakers. Today she brought little Zeinah, her two year old daughter who loves escaping from the classroom to toddle down the halls and say hello to everyone. We don’t even chase Zeinah anymore, knowing some IRC staff member will invariably bring her back with a huge smile on their face.


Finally, to my right sit Mutaz and Fatima. Grandparents from Sudan, their dignity and kindness are soothing just to be around. Mutaz just got his first job here. In Khartoum he was a university professor. In Walnut Creek he will change sheets in a hotel. He does not complain. Not a word.


Fatima approaches me after class with a piece of paper in her hand. “On Tuesday I told you how I taught Arabic to an American woman using Sudanese proverbs,” she reminds me. I loved the idea and had asked her about them. Now she unfolds the sheet and shows me lines of graceful Arabic above precise English translations. “I wrote some of them down for you.”


She reads them to me, first in Arabic then in English. “A child is a child of everyone.” Her pronunciation is clean and clear, just a soft underlayer of her homeland below the words. “You who dig a hole for evil, make your space in it.” Her words sound like her ancestors, my ancestors, our ancestors. “Seek the neighbor, before the house.”


In Arabic the proverbs rhyme, but I prefer the English versions, which sound like different cultures meeting in shared humanity. All three speak directly to the understanding and purpose of the IRC.


A child is a child of everyone because we are all neighbors, all one community, whether we’re born in Sudan, Syria, or San Francisco.


You who dig a hole for evil, make your space in it rings painfully true as our leaders make mistakes in the name of power and greed.


And finally, Seek the neighbor, before the house. It’s the person who matters, not the distractions of wealth or status, nationality or creed.


It’s pretty normal for me to feel like I am the student, learning more than I have to teach, when I come to the IRC. I’ve been fortunate to teach English in half a dozen countries and have felt that way before, but I’ve never had classes like these.


Normally in beginner English we talk a lot about about family and background. “Is your brother short, or tall? Is your town big, or small? Is your home clean, or messy?” But here, their home might be rubble, their towns occupied or destroyed, and their brothers….


Early in my days at the IRC, I saw my predecessor make an honest mistake. She asked an Afghani man about his children. He told us he had five. Three sons and two daughters. He told us he didn’t know if he’d ever see them again. He told us he didn’t even know if they were still alive. He sat, and he cried. And there was not a thing we could do to fix it.


According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, rates of PTSD among refugees range from 39 to 100%. In comparison to 1% for the general population. 39%, to 100%.


irc-catching-the-busAll of my students are mourning something, but whereas someone in mourning might want to talk about the sadness in their heart, asking someone with PTSD about it can put them back into that original place of trauma. I wish I knew how to help more, but all I know is a little about teaching. And a little about refugees.


Here’s some of what I know. Refugees don’t come to America for a handout. They don’t come to take anyone’s job. They come because they are like you and me. They want to live, they want to earn an honest day’s wage, and they want to raise their children without fear of bullets or starvation.


When I hear politicians disparage and blame refugees, I feel anger, and I feel fear. But when I hear regular people speak against them, I just want to invite them to class with me. Prejudice and fear, contempt and aggression, none of these would survive ten minutes at a table with my students.


They are good people whose previous lives would have looked a lot like yours and mine. Family and friends. Work and play. Traditions and celebrations. Mourning in the natural course of time. Instead they have endured unimaginable suffering. And now they’re here, learning a whole new…everything. New rules, new society, and a new language, with its inexplicable spellings and baffling vowels. This transition is brutal, unjust, and some days surreal. But every class feels like a victory anyway.


Because they made it. Against all odds and overcoming excruciating obstacles. But they got here. To live. To heal. To feel hope again. That is the true beauty of America. That is what it really means to live in a land of tolerance, a land of opportunity, a land of the free.


God bless America, refugees welcome.