Excerpt from my “teacher diaries” on July 1st, 2005:
How many classrooms in the world does the teacher need to double check that no one is from Rwanda before discussing genocide? I do in mine. With one particular class, I have two students from Zambia, one from South Africa, one from Kosovo, and one from Nigeria. When I asked them this morning, they all said that they hadn’t experienced any severe violence during their lifetimes, so I was able to continue on with the conversation.
Later in the same class, my student from South Africa received a standing ovation from her peers after recounting several of the horrible stories that have been passed down by her parents and grandparents—stories of hate and violence during the heat of Apartheid. The British students were amazed that people could hate to that extent, while most of the immigrant and refugee children sat with understanding faces. They have heard their own share of stories.
Toward the end of the lesson, a loud thud suddenly shook the back of the classroom. The student from South Africa—the petite twelve-year-old girl with braids in her hair who moments earlier had received her first applause—she was laying face down on the ground, passed out, for reasons that remain unknown. I carried her like a baby out of the room; she was limp in my arms. She has since regained her composure, and her mother is coming to pick her up. I can’t help wondering if the emotion of the earlier discussion affected her in some physical way.
I’ll never forget that year. Forced to throw my teacher training out the window, I was hurled into a challenging “sink or swim” placement in a low-income area of East London, home to the cockney accent and authentic curry.
Two items made this school especially unique: first, the Ford logo emblazoned one corner of the school crest because the primary employment source for the community was the local Ford plant; second, the school served a large portion of government refugee housing.
So, my first year as an English teacher, I educated the children of third-generation British Ford factory employees, and I educated refugees. Looking back, even after being on the opposite end of the spectrum—teaching at an elite American preparatory school—I can honestly say that this was one of the most rewarding years of my professional teaching career.
That year I learned so much about education, but truth be told, it was those kids who instructed me.
It was Sajmir and Mohammed—best friends behind the closed doors of my classroom, yet forced “enemies” beyond. See, Sajmir was an Orthodox Albanian, and Mohammed was an African Muslim. Their respective diasporic groups hated one another, but in my classroom, they were as thick as thieves. One time they staged a full-fledged fight in the corridor adjacent to my room. Sajmir actually gave Mohammed a bloody lip. When I came flying out my door to stop the fight, they both shot me this look that pleaded don’t let them know. Sajmir even gave me a knowing wink. They stopped fighting at that point and yelled for a while until the show was over, their friend groups huddled behind each contender.
I also learned from Ali, the fourteen-year-old boy who hid under my desk and swiped chocolate from the bottom drawer. See, he had PTSD, and when he couldn’t handle the noise, he self-soothed under my desk. As a tiny boy, Ali experienced the massacre of much of his family in the Rawandan genocide. After a while, I started locking my desk drawer to prevent Ali from consuming my entire chocolate supply, but sometimes, usually when I was sitting alone at my desk “marking” papers, he would pop his head into my classroom and whisper, “Miss … can I have some chocolate, please?” Although I shooed him away on multiple occasions, I have to admit that I caved more than once.
Last week I wept when I discovered how severe the Syrian refugee crisis has become. Not only because of the massive scale of human tragedy, but also because I have known refugee children, and I have seen how hard they fight to survive. I remember fourteen-year-old Sajmir’s pure joy when successfully completing an easy reader that my 6-year-old could probably read today. It was a story about a little frog. He and Mohammed made jokes about the frog for weeks, allowing themselves to make light of the situation to prevent embarrassment for reading at a 1st grade level. He almost cried when he finished that little froggy book, because he knew that it really was a big deal. He was reading English.
This is one reason why I say #refugeeswelcome and #neveragain. I’m not naive. I know that when countries open their borders, it’s not just to innocent women and children. I know that there are risks involved. But no matter our politics, I believe this issue begins within our hearts. At the end of the day, we choose either connection and compassion, distance and objectification, or at worst, disconnect and apathy. Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s words echo through history, so relevant today: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
So right now I’m speaking, and I’m acting, even in my small way.
If I can do nothing else, I will make sure that I intentionally honor the beauty and sacredness of all humanity. As I teach my daughters, citizens of an unprecedented global generation, about the depth of history, poetry, and artistry within other cultures—even those of developing and warring nations—I will point out the beauty, because no matter the brokenness of the country or the corruptness of the controlling government, beauty can always be found.
When looking into the faces of the children.
To learn more about the Syrian Refugee Crisis and what you can do to help, start here.
Photo Credits: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images & Peter Biro/IRC