Sunday, June 10, 2012

Refugees and Reciprocity

I wish I had taken a picture of the whiteboard.

Their words, carefully scrawled in red marker, punctuated my original sentences. The letters were shaky and un-uniform; some dipped below the line I'd drawn and some were near unrecognizable....but you could read them. "Salesperson", "fixes", "mechanic", "waiter", "cleans buildings". The words were there and, what's more, so was the comprehension. I was beaming.

Last Wednesday was my last day with the refugees for the school year. The ESL classroom is closed over the summer and I'll be studying abroad so we had to say goodbye. During our last lesson we mostly reviewed material from the last six months: places, directions, the months and days, colors, grammar, does vs. doesn't, jobs...and for some, the alphabet. It's been an amazing six months and when I thought back to January, I couldn't help but beam inside. Six months ago I was given my own little table with 6-10 newly arrived refugees (depending on the day and weather, attendance would shift). Six months ago we couldn't understand each other. Six months ago "January" meant nothing to them. Six months ago some of them couldn't even write their names. Now they're writing sentences on the whiteboard and they know what the words mean!

Alganesh is Eritrean and lived in an Ethiopian refugee camp for 10 years with her three little boys. She stands at the board sounding out each word as she writes and then, when she's written a word, she spells it back to herself. We laugh as she writes out what a waitress does...."My job!", she giggles. "I serve food everyday...but my boys, no tip." She gets it.

Law Meh is quiet and shy and always says "thank you Teacher" when I pass out her paper. I don't know how long it took for her to get out of Burma, but she hasn't been here long. She left in March to work on a mushroom farm, but was fired after two weeks for being too slow. She's back now, smiling and whispering at my table and as we practice the jobs she surprises us all. "I can plumbing" she announces. Alganesh tries to explain what plumbing is and Law Meh nods vigorously "yes! I can plumbing." Well, we've got a fix-it woman on our hands. She gets it.

Twa Meh joined us about a month ago. She'd never held a pencil. So while the others quizzed each other on jobs or made flashcards for themselves, she and I traced the alphabet and learned each tricky letter. She's been practicing her name for the past two weeks; there are pages and pages of her notebook covered in shaky"Twa Meh"s. Wednesday, I was busy working on vocab with the others and when I turned around a couple minutes later, her name AND the day's date were boldly written on her paper. She finally gets it! I was so proud.

I've learned so much from these refugees. Once again, I came in prepared to be the one teaching, instructing, and guiding. And while that did happen, once again I was surprised and humbled by how much I learned from them. Alganesh and I would sit at lunchtime and enjoy her homemade injera while she'd tell me of life in the camp. Ler Say and Nyay Reh would laugh as I tried to pronounce kareni words...I'm sure I was butchering them. They were patient with me as I tried to make English comprehensible; they smiled at my blunders and gave me grace when I couldn't ask for it.

I'm going to miss those guys over the summer. ESL is where it's at.

No comments: