Language as Hope: Teaching English to Refugees

They straggle into the classroom, some early, some right on time, some a few minutes late. I don’t hold it against them. This is not the willful laziness of college. My students haven’t opted to sleep late or chosen to stand outside the door talking with a friend. If they are late it is because of their work or because one of the three buses they take to make it to the school was delayed.

I offer bright smiles as I hand out books and give them placards on which to write their names. Some return my smile and offer a carefully pronounced “Good evening.” Others cast their eyes down under furrowed brows.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves—reveal our names and where we are from. The young woman in the second seat, an eager learner with bright eyes and a face that reveals her youth, says that she is from a Thailand refugee camp. She does not claim a nationality, but a camp, a place for those caught in-between. When I ask her where she lived before the camp, confusion washes over her face. “My family has been in the camp for 50 years,” she says. She has been in America for two months.

A gentleman from Iraq, in his 60s if not early 70s, dressed in a dapper suit and addressing me with unnecessary formality, does not stop after his name and his home country but tells me about the work he has done in Iran and Jordan, the positions he has held. He wants me to know that in another time and another place he was someone who knew things, someone who spoke with authority, someone who did not have to grasp for words or grapple for understanding. He is not pompous or boastful, but simply a man whose world has been upended.

Through the course of the class, little things are revealed. One student has been in the United States for twenty years, making her way through the details of days, weeks, and years with only beginner level English. One student has children, though they are not here with him in the United States. One student must stand for part of the class, because of a back injury suffered in Iraq for which he is being treated at the local hospital.

I teach the best that I know how. I introduce new vocabulary. I say words slowly, carefully. I write every word on the board. I ask them to repeat everything I say. I demonstrate where I put my tongue, how I move my lips. I show them how to arrange words into sentences and questions. I give them verbs that will open the door on English. I ask questions and I give them silence in which to think and respond. I encourage them to speak, speak, speak, even when they don’t know exactly what they want to say. I celebrate their successes. I work with them through their struggles.

Having lived abroad and tried to learn languages foreign to my English-speaking tongue, I can sympathize with my students. But I cannot empathize. I chose to learn other languages. I chose to live abroad. I chose to travel to places where people did not speak my language. My travel has been for pleasure. And there is, above all, the simple fact that I always had a home to return to, a place where I could be understood.

My students have not come to the United States as travelers, but as refugees, as people without a home. They are far, far braver than me. They astound me with their courage. I am amazed that they still laugh, that they bother to ask me how my day was, that they mourn for each other’s losses when their own are at least as great. It is because of this courage, this joy, and this compassion that I spend every Tuesday night in the windowless basement room of a church. It is because I have been given so much in a world where so many are given so little that I do my very best to teach my students the difficult language of a country that perhaps one day they will refer to as home.

11 Replies to “Language as Hope: Teaching English to Refugees”

  1. Really lovely piece and an important issue. I keep thinking of how I can use my experiences abroad productively when we do eventually return to the United States and working with refugees and immigrants keeps coming to mind. I hope that I have the discipline and will to actually do it. Thanks for doing your bit and sharing your mother language and home with your students.

  2. I came across this post whilst thinking about seeing if there is any helpful advise on teaching refugees english. It is a fantastic post. I myself went to my local park with my 3 year old about a month ago and whilst she payed alongside 2 children, a man gestured to me to please sit on the bench rather than stand.We exchanged a smile and I thanked him.On trying to converse with him it was such a shame that he had no english.I wrote on a piece of paper, hoping he could get a translator,that I would really like to help him to learn english if he so wishes.My husband 4 children and myself were so happy that the man came to our house today.He has no written or reading skills in his own language.I managed to understand 2 words-Afghanistan and farsi.I sat with my 10 year old drawing pictures and pointing saying ‘english’then saying the word that represented my son’s cat,dog,fish,house,car. I then opened a google farsi english translator to hear spoken words in his language and said them to him .He is teaching us as much of his language as we are teaching him of ours.I am so glad that he wasn’t frightend or reluctant to come over and at the same time we are so sad to understand that he has been here 2 years and that his wife and 8 children are still in afghanistan..angelique

  3. Hello, loved this post. I’m wondering where you teach in the US? I’m a newly qualified ESL teacher and have been looking for a job in the States once I get back from my own travels next month, and I’d like to do something a bit more worthwhile (teaching refugees for instance) and so if you have any information for me, I’d really appreciate it.


  4. This is beautifully written. I too have taught refugees and I now studying so that I may do it again in the future, but with greater knowledge.

    Your understanding of the “gentleman from Iraq” bought tears to my eyes. You are the kind of teacher the world needs. Bravo to you!

    1. Opps! I’m blaming my tears for my typos..
      I now studying! It seems I’ve been living in foreign lands for too long!
      and bought, of course, should be brought 🙁

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