Maryam Razai walks 30 minutes to and from school each day. Her cheeks droop, and the excess skin appears smooth like silk. As a child, I used to touch my Nana’s face, tracing the lines of her 70 some odd years. In exchange, she always offered up a story: how she met my Papa, or the flames that once consumed their attic.
As I take visual snapshots of Maryam—an elderly Afghani refugee living in Utica, New York—we struggle to make conversation. She doesn’t tell me about her war-torn country or the family she has lost or left behind. I don’t ask about the scars on the hand of the woman sitting beside her, or the traditional sari she is wearing.
Instead, I help her fill out a work sheet with phrases like, “The vase is on the table” or “The bottle is on the floor.” Just as I am beginning to feel helpless, she raises her pencil from the page, looks at me, and smiles–a gesture that fills me with hope and optimism.
The Office of Immigration Statistics Annual Flow Report notes that in 2008, 60,108 refugees were admitted to the United States. Despite the U.S. Resettlement Program’s reputation as a lengthy and challenging process, this represents a 25% increase from the 2007 admission statistic. Whether or not we recognize it, the U.S. is growing as a major haven for refugees.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants explains that, “Refugees flee their homes, business[es], farms and communities in order to escape war and persecution.” These men and women enter the U.S.—or any country where they seek asylum—not knowing what to expect. Though many find and connect with others from their native country, life is not easy.
The Resettlement Program provides minimal financial aid and some psychological support, but for those who have experienced intense loss and suffering, it’s likely not enough. For example, refugees receive about $400 per month from the government, and unemployment rates are still slightly higher among refugees than among Americans.
Many English speakers—from activists to explorers to teachers—have seized the opportunity to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) abroad. This is a beneficial and worthy endeavor, but there are 2.6 million refugees in the U.S., many of whom are unable to move forward with their lives until they learn a new language—perhaps the most intimidating barrier to getting by in the States.
If you’re putting down roots, but still want to make a difference, you may consider teaching or volunteering with refugees in your own country.
I met Maryam while volunteering at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in Utica. There, surrounded by migrants from Afghanistan, Burma, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, and Ecuador, I realized that teaching English to refugees is about much more than how to spell “refrigerator.”
Language as Psychotherapy
At Mohawk Valley, the classrooms are not dull and dreary places where students lament their losses. Instead, students channel culture shock into concrete motivation to learn. One teacher introduces me to the “bottle-plate” dance, in which refugees clap, stomp, and sing about everyday objects. At some points, the classroom looks as though it will burst into a full on party, complete with break dancing and a turntable.
The language exercises also stray from asking questions about the past, an issue brought to my attention by the center’s director. Rather than inquiring about a refugee’s native country or family, students are asked about their life in the here and now: “Who do you live with?”; “Do you work?”; “How many days per week do you attend school?”.
Learning English becomes a therapeutic practice for the individuals at the center. With every new word or phrase, students find a new form of self-expression, and in doing so, find themselves. Language also provides an important outlet for individuals if they desire connection–allowing them to share their stories and narratives in English with new friends, teachers, judges, and caseworkers.
In this sense, learning English becomes more than a task or lesson; English becomes a language of refuge.
A Bridge to Self-reflection and Personal Fulfillment
Teaching your native language to refugees is a personally rewarding experience. I met people from countries that used to exist to me only as ink blots on a map. I was introduced to Esar My, a Burmese refugee with exceptional conversation skills. Later, I met Esar’s daughter, a 20-something girl much like me, yet already married. This work fulfilled my desire to travel by engaging me in what I love most about the journey abroad: meeting new people and learning from them.
What was happening in these classrooms was also real and important. Without English skills, these men and women would be forced to subsist on very little. Language is a necessary component of physically starting over: finding a new home, new job, and fresh start.
Likewise, language can be a significant step to psychological reconciliation and repair, inviting individuals to let loose through classroom exercises, connect with their peers, and process and share their histories.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement has compiled a list of “Mutual Assistance Associations” for refugees. Check out the list to find a center near you. If you’re already trained in ESL, mention this when you call; the center may need full or part time teachers. If you’re not trained in ESL, you may also be able to help out as a tutor, interpreter, office assistant, or general volunteer.
If you’re interested in learning a language yourself, be sure to check out our Language Learning Focus Page.