In light of current events I’m reposting a blog about tutoring refugees in 2015. Two facts: 1) They need support. 2) We won’t be able to help them all.
But here’s a challenge: our government, under Democrat and Republican presidents, has not and cannot do as much as people wish. I urge you to consider thoughtfully and prayerfully doing something that makes life better for at least one refugee. Protesting makes a point, but volunteer hands and feet, and private pocketbooks, speak louder. There are opportunities everywhere.
For the first time since WWII more than 50 million refugees worldwide are displaced permanently, and the number is climbing. The media has shown
many disturbing images. In the summer of 2015, I tutored refugees in an English as a Second Language class. Fresh off the planes, they came from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba. Here are some impressions:
KFC, Cheesecake, Ice Cream
“I like KFC. It–it is good,” says the middle-aged Iraqi woman, when asked her favorite American foods. “Oh, and cheesecake is very delicious,” she adds. She tells me she spent four years in Jordan after fleeing Iraq. She wants to work as a chef. One of her adult sons is with her in the U.S., but she worries about the other one still in Iraq. “It is very dangerous,” she says.
When her U.S. son picks her up from class, he asks how his mother is doing. His English is good. I suggest he might help her with homework. He frowns, “I want her to learn to do it herself.” I gently say she might learn faster if he helps. There’s silence. I don’t think this idea is going to fly in entrenched cultural roles.
“I like ice cream,” smiles the petite, shy twenty-year-old from Burma. She draws a picture of her former home—a thatched hut on stilts. Now she lives in a city apartment with her sister and brother-in-law. She enjoys listening to Christian music on her iPhone and wants to be a tailor. She is always early to class with homework completed.
“My father is old; my mother is happy; my girlfriend is beautiful.” These are the sentences using adjectives that two Afghani brothers create. They have only been in the U.S. a few days. Their English is poor, they say, because they have spent five years in Hungary, followed by four in Turkey. They yawn a lot from jet lag and are cautious. After asking their ages, I realize they were ten and eleven years old when they left Afghanistan.
The Congo Family Refugees
As summer progresses the Congo family from a Burundi refugee camp is a joy to tutor and a mystery. During their first time to class, they have only been in the U.S. about 10 days. Trauma is evident in tense bodies, sad eyes, and the way they interact with one another. They speak mostly French and Swahili. I notice the depressed mother and 22-year-old daughter have several scars on their arms; the mother has scars across her throat. The son, about 21-years-old, seems healthy, but he misses classes because of sickness and doctor appointments.
From the start, they are A students. The daughter tells me she has seven brothers and sisters. About a month later, the daughter reports her three middle school brothers have arrived at the airport. Mom will not be coming to class anymore.
Cubans and Iraqi Refugees
My tutoring also includes a beefy mechanic from Cuba, who is interested in learning about the Craigslist classified jobs. A sad Cuban woman comes to class only twice—she is grieving the eight-year-old son she left behind with grandma for economic opportunities. She says it is never possible for her son to come to the U.S. I don’t know if this is true, but it is true for her at that moment.
Most of the refugees I meet are motivated to work and want to make lots of money. Sometimes they are disappointed they cannot have the jobs they dreamed about. In the case of the Iraqis, many are white collar professionals, who risked their lives to help the U.S. military. Now they must work at lower-paying jobs like valet parking, janitorial work, and housekeeping and restaurant services. Still, they are the fortunate ones who won the residential lottery.
Is a Nickel Worth More Than a Dime?
In class, students and teachers smile a lot and use hand gestures. I learn too. For example, I never thought about how foreigners must discern that even though a dime is smaller than a nickel, its value is twice as much. Initially, they confuse a quarter with a nickel.
When we “read” 1:00 p.m. we say, “one o’clock”—not zero o’clock. Some of the refugees do not comprehend our mail system or banking, because they do not have access to these systems in their countries.
Running a Fever?
During one session Teacher Cameron goes over the basics of a health clinic and pharmacy. How can one understand what “running a fever” is, when one doesn’t speak or read English? Could they explain to a doctor such words as constipation or diarrhea. Will they give the proper dosage of medicine to a sick child? Will they accurately tell the doctor which body part hurts? So many daily culture actions we do automatically.
In my summer as an ESL tutor, my greatest reward was seeing several refugees become less stressed. Their body language became more relaxed, and there were genuine smiles and some joking. They all said they appreciated America’s safety.
Do You know the Difference Between “Refugee” and “Immigrant”?
I thought these nouns were interchangeable. Now I know an immigrant has more choices in migrating to another country. Because of war or natural catastrophe, a refugee never goes “home.” Refugees, many who live for nine years in a camp, must wait for someone–some country–to adopt them. Sadly, children and women are not safe in many of these camps.
I learned the U.S. is one of the only countries that accepts refugees with health issues. In 2015, there were approximately 70,000 refugees per year admitted to the U.S.–this number was down from the 100,000 per year that came to the U.S. under President Clinton. The government decides which refugees to take and from which countries. Why some countries and not others? A refugee worker I heard answered, “Who knows? But it is no secret that the government doesn’t do anything for free.”
We can always do better. The question is, “What does that look like?” Our political system’s failure cannot be an excuse for doing less or nothing at all. “Who is my neighbor?” is a soul-searching question that dances with “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” Each person must wrestle with the answers, and then hopefully do something to help, even if it is outside the comfort zone.
A Blog About Refugees
Friend Vicki Witte spends a lot of time helping refugees, and she blogs about it at: