What I Learned From Refugees

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.

This could happen to any of us. (two photos by anonymous friend)

Heartbreaking Statistics

For the first time since WWII more than 50 million refugees worldwide are displaced permanently, and the number is climbing. The media has shown


Syrian refugees in 2015 seek safe refuge in Europe.  Photo courtesy of the UN Refugee Agency.


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.

Afghan Brothers

“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.

Kevin and Vicki Witte with 12 of their Nepali friends, former refugees now settled in Colorado. (photo provided by Vicki Witte)
Kevin and Vicki Witte with some of their Nepali friends, former refugees now settled in Colorado. (photo provided by Vicki Witte) Find Vicki’s insightful blog at:

Is a Nickel Worth More Than a Dime?

World Relief offers a free study guide download and first chapter of this book at https://www.worldrelief.org/seekingrefuge

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:


A Good Movie

Reese Witherspoon, starring as a social worker in "The Good Lie" movie greets three Sudanese refugees at a Kansas airport.
I recommend the movie The Good Lie, with Reese Witherspoon. Here, as a social worker, she greets Sudanese arrivals at a Kansas airport. Some of the actors are former refugees. Photo courtesy of Alcorn Entertainment/Warner Bros.

How Do You Respond to the Homeless?

“Somebody needs to help him! He looks so sad!” My little ones are once again disturbed about a scruffy stranger at a stoplight. He’s holding a cardboard sign: “Anything helps. God bless America.” One of some 2000 local homeless people, he is also part of over half a million homeless nationwide. Those red, two-minute traffic lights are the most popular hangouts for handouts. A beggar’s presence makes for squirmy moments, especially when the driver has kind-hearted little girls in the car.

I explain to the girls that we can’t give this man money because he might use it for drugs and alcohol. I recently listened to a speech from a police officer, assigned to the homeless beat. He says financial handouts are the worst actions a person can do to ease a conscience. “Do the homeless a big favor,” he emphasizes, “Don’t enable their habits. Instead, donate to your shelters and food banks.”

Cardboard sign by homeless man in red sleeping bag says, "Never look down on anyone unless you're helping them up."
The sign says,”Never look down on anyone unless you’re helping them up.”

The officer tells lots of stories. He cleans up many abandoned camps—a sanitary nightmare. He helps people find relatives. He acts as a peacemaker. He keeps talking to one alcoholic about recovery programs—the man was once mayor of a nearby town. He mentions Carla, the woman in a fake pregnant outfit, who has been begging at the same street corner for three years. He says, there are homeless, who

Black and white photo shows young couple, he with a cigarette in his mouth and she with her cheek buried into his shoulder.
The homeless sometimes are young people– runaways and those kicked out of their homes because of lifestyle choices.

earn more money begging than if they work minimum wage jobs. Many can’t hold a job because of mental illness. They forget to take their medicine, or their pills are stolen. Then, without meds, they act out and end up in jail. They clean up, are released, and the cycle starts again. Homeless can be veterans, young adventurers, girls and boys kicked out of homes, the unemployed.

I heard one former homeless man speak about the uniqueness of each individual. His journey started when his elderly mother became ill and needed a nursing home. He put their belongings in storage and camped under some bushes near her building. He says, “No one knew I was in the bushes; they were so thick. That is, no one knew except for the nurses’ aides, who came and got me when they couldn’t quiet Mom.”

This man is okay now, working as a custodian at a community center.  But what to do with two little girls, who are sad each time we stop at a light where there is another beggar with a cardboard sign?

This is what happened last week with my granddaughters.

“Okay, I want each of you to decorate a brown paper bag. Today, we are giving snacks to two homeless people.”

Little faces brighten, and voices elevate. Rainbows and flowers mark the bags; a paper heart is tucked inside. Then, we stuff the bags with canned tuna and crackers, breakfast bars, juice boxes, and M&M’s.

As we climb into the car I say, “Let’s practice putting your snack bags out half opened windows.” They look scared.

“Now, “ I say, more confident than I feel, “We are going to pray that God shows us the right people.”

We each say a little prayer.

“Grandma, what if we don’t find any homeless people?”

“Oh, sweetie, I’m not worried about that. We prayed. Now let’s trust God to find the people he wants us to find.”

We pass one bearded fellow with a sign, who happens to be on the wrong side of the street. “I guess he’s not the one,” I assure, turning the car downtown.

Lose a job or a deceased family member's Social Security check, max out the credit cards, pay for expensive medicine to keep one alive--these all can contribute to becoming homeless. An elderly woman squats on the sidewalk and waves to camera, her bag and coat by her side and a coffee mug in front of her.
Lose a job or a deceased family member’s Social Security check, max out the credit cards, pay for expensive medicines–these factors can contribute to becoming homeless.

A few blocks later I spot a bag lady. Who can guess her age when weather and life have beaten a person down to a few bags of garbage? This lady, donning a head bandanna, is rummaging through her belongings.

“Sister,” I yell. “Sister!” No response. Then, “Mam, Mam.”

She looks up.

“Hi there. Would you like some food? My granddaughter would like to share some snacks with you.”

The five-year-old, holding her bag, grins like the Man-in-the-Moon.

The lady is puzzled and then shows a toothy smile. She comes over and puts her big hands on the half-opened window. There’s a dirty piece of bread between her fingers. “Oh, niña pequeña, I don’t want to take your food. That wouldn’t be right,” she says.

The smiling child responds, “It’s okay. It’s your food. My grandma gave it to me so I could share with you.”

Hesitantly, the lady takes the bag.

“What’s your name?” I ask, introducing us.

“Kathy,” she replies. Then her words tumble out. She lost her apartment, because she didn’t report her mother’s death to Social Security. She is on a waiting list to get a bus ticket back to her family. She has written all these poems for her grandchildren but has no way to send them. She is in a shelter, where she fought last night with a mean woman. And, by the way, could we give her a ride?

“Oh, I am sorry. We can’t today.”

The rejection folds the conversation. She backs away a little.

“Kathy, we will pray for you, “ I say. “And we hope you get that bus ticket really soon to be with your family.”

She smiles and goes back to her bags.

“Hey, look,” I say to the girls. “I see another lady across the street. Sweetie, do you want to give your bag to her?”

We drive to the red light.

This woman, in her twenties, has a beautiful round face. A chihuahua peeks out of a pouch, strapped across her chest.

“Could you use some snack foods?” I ask Kathryn.

Her lips tremble and her eyes get teary. “Yes,” she says slowly and then takes the bag from the 7-year-old.

Kathryn stands there, wearing a shy smile.

“What’s your dog’s name?” I ask.

“Cocoa,” she says.

The light is about to turn green. “He’s cute. Kathryn, we hope you and Cocoa have a nice day. God bless you.”

“You too. Thank you so much.”

The little girls are flying high. I tell them we can’t help every person, but we can do a little. I tell them our town cares for the homeless. We drive by a shelter and a soup kitchen.

They nod in understanding. Of course, they ask if we can do this again.

“Maybe,” I say. “Hey, isn’t it neat how God led us to people today whose names had the k sound?”

“Yeah!” they agree. “Kathy, Kathryn, and Cocoa too.”

Two sisters hug and look straight into the camera
Little sisters with kind hearts (photo by MEB)