In Honor of World Refugee Day 2017

Teaching refugee students taught me what I value in community.

I’d like to tell you about my last job, teaching refugee and immigrant students, and what it taught me.

The most joyful job I’ve ever had was in a cramped basement office with concrete walls and no windows. The summer months brought so much humidity that the paper in the copier would curl and jam, and the concrete walls would sweat, dropping their taped-on contents to the floor. But the space was very clean and bright, and it was filled each day with the laughter and chit chat of more than a hundred students, staff, and volunteers from all across the globe.

This was the English Learning Center, a nonprofit school for adult immigrants and refugees on the south side of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I stumbled into a temporary job there when I was 23 years old, and I fully expected to leave again after my year-long term was up. Little did I know that I was in for a surprise. This temporary, one-year sting made me part of a community that I truly loved, and even after the year was up, I kept coming back. Before I knew it, nine years flew by, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a decade.

Teaching refugee and immigrant students

The heart of the ELC is its incredible students, and they share one very difficult goal: to speak English. They also share the experience of coming to the United States as refugees, immigrants, or asylum seekers. But from there, the students’ paths diverse. All had unique backgrounds and diverse goals for their futures. This was a global slice of humanity, from every walk of life. There was an Iraqi rapper and his friend, a DJ, from Egypt. There was a professor from Morocco and her adult son. There was a Buddhist monk from Tibet, an actor from Ghana, a community organizer from Guatemala, and an oceanographer from Russia. There were singers, poets, parents, shop owners, factory workers, teenagers, farmers, politicians, artists, builders, cooks, and teachers.

Some students were attending school for the first time in their lives – even learning to read for the first time, and doing it in a foreign language! Other students had graduate degrees but just needed the language to put their skills to work in their new home. Yet they all found themselves there, in a tiny basement in Minneapolis, learning English, adjusting to a new culture, and surviving brutally cold Minnesota winters together. Mary Pipher got it right in her book titled – I really felt like this was, The Middle of Everywhere.

There are so many remarkable students at the ELC. I’d like to tell you about one. Ahmed (not his real name) spoke not a single word of English, and he registered for school on the one day both our Somali interpreters were out sick. It was bad timing. I was a little worried about how it would go, but he was undaunted. He greeted me with a warm smile and a few words in Somali that I couldn’t understand. He chuckled to himself and shrugged, his smile unbroken, as if saying, “Ok…this should be interested!” He was determined as he sat down to take his English test, which he later returned with not one single answer correct. We had no common language whatsoever, but getting him registered for school – difficult as it was – was never a chore.

His friendly smile and easygoing nature made me feel like we were in it together – we were a team. This was the first of a few challenges Ahmed and I faced together.

Once, during his first few days in the country, when he was still learning his way around, he got himself to school and then couldn’t remember how to get home. I found him outside the school doors, looking around thoughtfully and trying to remember which street would take him back. He gestured in each direction, then shook his head, looked at me and laughed, as if to say, “Can you believe this? I have no idea which way to go!”

I could sympathize. More than once, I’ve found myself in a foreign country, just a few blocks from my hotel with no idea how to get back. I usually had the benefit of a map, but Ahmed did not read, so he had to rely on other resources. I stood with him on the street corner, with my pocket English-Somali dictionary in hand, trying (unsuccessfully) to put together a useful sentence. He was patient and helpful, trying to guess what word I was badly mispronouncing. We both celebrated each time I said something he understood, but it didn’t help me confirm where he was going or give him direction to get there.

Thankfully, after about half an hour, we were “rescued” by a kind woman who spoke Somali and agreed to take Ahmed home. But the bigger success here was how Ahmed handled the situation. Imagine being a capable adult who is used to taking care of yourself and your family, and now you’re thwarted by something as simple as a half-mile walk. It would be easy to be angry or frustrated. Ahmed may have felt that way too, but he never let it show, and he never let it compromise his friendly attitude and sense of humor.

I learned something from every student I got to know at the English Learning Center.

Ahmed taught me that kindness and humor doesn’t need a common language. I learned bravery from the 70-and-80-year-old students who were willing to walk into a school and attend class for the first time in their lives. The many students who spent years separated from their families, waiting for visas, taught me about love and endurance. I learned the quirks of my own language and culture by learning about the languages and cultures of others. I learned resilience from individuals who had endured heartbreaking tragedy and, in spite of that sadness, approached each day with laughter, gratitude, and joy. And everyone I met taught me that we as humans are made so much stronger by each other and by our differences. Embracing this kind of diversity and appreciating each other for it, that is what can truly make our communities great.

This article was originally published by USAHello.