Thursday, October 18, 2012


An old post, but I'm missing "my" refugees.

His lips were tightly pursed as his callused fingers gripped the pencil. His brow furrowed in concentration as he slowly wrote the letter "s". It was curvy and difficult and in his intense effort the pencil slipped, leaving a dark, jagged streak on the notepaper. Rows and rows of large, shaky letters lined the paper. He'd been practicing the alphabet for near three hours; his dedication a combination of pride and determination. He grumbled in Karen as he erased his fumbled "s", frustrated at himself and the stubborn curvy letter.

I quietly watched him as he worked. A Karen refugee in his mid-60s, Pablat has seen pain; his scarred hands and premature wrinkles bear testimony to it. CNN dubbed the conflict in Burma a "forgotten story", yet the civil war there has continued since WWII, making it the longest-running armed conflict in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Karen have been forced from their homes, most have lived in refugee camps their entire lives. A lucky few are allowed to relocate to the US; Pablat to San Diego. As a branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we offer english classes to refugees like Pablat and on Monday our little classroom was crammed with 67 refugees. The room quickly filled with Burmese, Somali, and Iraqi chatter, but silenced as soon as the teacher began to speak. They are dedicated and eager to learn; the room quiets as 67 pencils begin to write.

Completely illiterate, Pablat's never held a pencil in his life. The learning curve is daunting at best. We work through the alphabet one letter at a time and I realize 26 is a lot of letters. I am suddenly aware of how difficult our language can be, our letters look and sound the same to the struggling learner. I realize how confusingly similar "b", "d", "p", "c", "e", "g" are and explaining the difference between "m" and "n" results in exasperation on both sides.

We work on the alphabet for hours and he slowly fills numerous sheets with the letters. He's determined to know their names too; he stops every couple minutes to recite the alphabet, one foreign letter at a time. For a change in pace, I write his name on the top of his paper. P-a-b-l-a-t. I slowly say each letter as I write. I point at the word, point at him; "Pablat". It takes a second, but he suddenly realizes what the word means and his eyes fill with tears. He beams as he takes my pencil and traces the word, whispering his name. He writes his name for the first time and we're both speechless; it's an incredible, beautiful moment.

Totally worth the countless hours more.

1 comment:

Freckled Philologist said...

I can imagine they've left quite a hole in your heart. Have you gone back yet to say good-bye? Or a hello in the way of a visit? Either way would be so nice!