When I Taught Refugees


In the summer of 2003, I was a year out of college with liberal arts degrees, listless, not sure what to be when I grew up, and chagrinned that apparently, I had grown up without figuring this out yet. During college, I had taught English to foreign university students and corporate expats, so a friend suggested I apply at a place she used to work. It was a small English school on Houston’s busy Westheimer corridor that mostly subsisted off contracts with the government to teach refugees.

Now it’s impossible to mention the word without conjuring all sorts of political and moral judgments in one direction or the other, but I assure you at the time, the only preconceived association I had was The Fugees’ 1996 hit remake, “Killing Me Softly.”

The director of the school tossed me into teaching night classes: English Monday/Wednesday/Friday and computer with the same students on Tuesday/Thursday.

Job #1: Teach them language for how to conduct transactions at the bank using words like withdrawal slip, deposit, checking account, savings.

Challenge #1: Most of them got here days ago, are still looking for jobs, and certainly don’t have bank accounts, much less savings.

Challenge #2: Lincoln Ford, my Liberian student, doesn’t read, so withdrawal slips are going to be difficult.

Lincoln was about my age, 23 or so, and had never been taught to read. He had been in camps for years. But he was eager to learn. He showed up an hour before class so we could work on phonics and sounding through Dr. Seuss books. (This was my first time teaching someone how to read.) Lincoln had what I now recognize was probably dyslexia. He had a terrible time remembering letter sounds and couldn’t string the sounds together, but his enthusiasm never dimmed. He beamed at me every time he got something right, and he was so proud that he was learning to read.

Merone and Daniel were twins from Ethiopia. Merone had gorgeous orange corkscrew curls and a spitfire personality. She kept her brother and all the guys from the Ethiopian contingency in line. Not long into the summer, she invited me to her sister’s house, where she was living, to have an authentic Ethiopian meal. This is where I learned to love the thin, spongey bread, injera, and spicy meat. That day, I came the closest I ever will to being a coffee-lover when she pan-roasted, ground, and brewed a batch of coffee, only sweetened with sugar. If it were all like this, I thought, I could get on board.  She and I developed a friendship, once or twice going to smoke hookah and sit on the patio of a local place. She would tell me about her new boyfriend, an American co-worker from the hotel where she had gotten a job as a housekeeper. A year later, she and her sister were at my baby shower giving me tips. Last I knew, she had married the guy.

Lino was my Sudanese polyglot. He was one of what have been called the Lost Boys, boys who were spared being massacred by the northern Sudanese militias like their parents were, only because they were away from the villages tending cattle at the time. To avoid being conscripted into those same militias or killed later, bands of Lost Boys, usually organized by the oldest among them, a kid maybe 15 or 16, walked up to a thousand miles to cross into Kenya for safety, where they were housed at UN camps.

One of my tasks with my students was to help them put together resumes. I thought this was a little ridiculous, given that most of them were applying for jobs like hotel housekeeper, grocery store stocker, and construction worker, but this was part of what was required according to the government contract. It was during this process that Lino’s qualifications came to light. Not only had he completed an advanced mechanics course available at the UN camp and extensive volunteer work for other residents; he also spoke 6 languages. The others vouched that he spoke them fluently. When I asked how he learned them all, he explained quietly and matter-of-factly how one was his mother’s, one his father’s, another he acquired from his best friend, and so on.

Dieudonné wore gold wire-rimmed glasses. His name meant “given by God.” He spoke with an endearing French Congolese accent—when he spoke—but he took his time to do so, not because of the language barrier but because he was a deliberate, pensive person. It took a while for him to warm up and trust me, but once he did, it was the best feeling in the world when he would ask me a question because I knew that he was trusting me to know the answer. He was about 4 weeks into a later fall class that the school decided to cancel half-way through. There weren’t enough students enrolled to justify paying a teacher. “Don’t worry, we’ll still give you your certificate,” they said, but Dieudonné was angry, insulted at being condescended to, and disappointed. He didn’t want a piece of paper; he wanted to learn English.

Ali and Kasim reminded me a little of the Iraqi Night at the Roxbury guys with their unbridled exuberance and incessant, if as yet hard-to-understand, commentary. Ali was a giant of a man with a close buzz cut who towered over me as he told joke after joke. Kasim stood maybe 5’5” and had a mop of black curly hair and a moustache. They were both REALLY excited about the Internet and showing me things they had found on it. They also were both extremely proud to be in the United States and held this country in the highest regard, as they told me on numerous occasions.

James was the reason we ended up playing computer whack-a-mole. About 60 years old, when he transferred into my computer class, I discovered what he needed first was not to learn what a spreadsheet was or how to draft resumes but how to work a mouse accurately. This led to the discovery that until my class, many of my students had never been on a computer at all. Some, especially James, found orienting themselves spatially on the screen and clicking and double-clicking with good aim quite daunting. Of course! I thought back to what it had been like for me to use a mouse for the first few times. Why would it be any different for my students if they had never done it? So instead of heaping an impossible task on them, we found a simple online game where they had to click on the moles popping up all over the screen. That and using actual boxes and file folders to show them how the computer was organized was a lot of what we did.

Martha was the girl with the big doe eyes. She hardly said a word, even when spoken to directly, but smiled often and wide. She attended class with her fiancé, Noah (who looked seriously like Lawrence Fishburne) and brother, Amin, who loved to tell me about the Blue Nile and other things in Ethiopia.  Martha was a great seamstress, the others told me, though she just smiled and looked at her lap when I asked her if that was true.

Moi was from another class, but somehow we got to know each other in the break room. He was Sudanese, too, but unlike my other Sudanese students, he was from the north of Sudan. He told me he had numerous brothers and sisters, of whom he was the youngest. His dad, a dissident, had gone missing years ago. No one knew if he was still alive or not, but the chances weren’t good.  This was the most I ever talked about the past with any of my students. It’s not that I wouldn’t have if they had wanted to, but I knew from reading, that what some of them had experienced was likely so horrific they couldn’t be blamed if they never wanted to mention it again, much less to me.  Moi and Lincoln Ford and two others ended up coming over to my mom’s for Thanksgiving that year. As a hostess gift, Moi made me a drawing of a palm tree, told me about interesting natural features in Sudan, and said he hoped one day I’d get to see them.

Anwar, for some reason, is the student that sticks with me the most. About 40 years old, Anwar had been a teacher in Sudan before going to Egypt as a refugee and becoming a bricklayer for some of the beachside resorts in Sharm al-Sheikh. Lanky, with a bald patch encircled by slightly graying, wiry hair, and with a thick moustache, his eyes twinkled. He was an excellent student, a quick study. He told me, more to encourage me than to boast about himself, “Teachers are very respected in my country.” And he, almost 20 years my senior with loads more experience, always afforded me that respect to the utmost. Maybe that’s why he’s the one with sticks with me. The humility I felt being treated like that when I knew he was likely the better teacher in the room by far, and the one deserving of respect in that regard.  Once, when I jokingly confessed to not being a very patient person, he cocked his head to one side, no smile on his face, and said, “Oh, that’s not good. Teacher must always be patient.” And he meant it.

Anwar didn’t have the high spirits and effusiveness of Ali and Kasim, but he was hopeful. He seemed like someone who had been burned before but who was cautiously optimistic.  He was glad to be here, and things were looking up, his face seemed to say. He was learning the ropes, getting settled into his apartment and area of town, learning the bus route to the school, making friends with the guys who were his roommates and neighbors, also refugees and usually considerably younger than Anwar, a fact about which he always seemed slightly bemused.

One evening, Anwar came in a few minutes early for class, though, crestfallen. His smile was gone, and he rested his forehead in his hand. “How are you, Anwar?” I asked as usual.

“Not good, Michelle” he said. “The lady from the YMCA (his refugee caseworker) took us today to apply for a job. The Arab grocery store. She take other guys, too. When we get there, we fill out the papers. We wait a long time. The owner, he came and called some guys. We wait some more. He call more guys. We wait to the afternoon. He call all the guys with, you know, lighter skin, to the back. All the guys from his country. It’s only guys like me, with skin like me, still sitting there. Then he say he got no more jobs. They all full. Michelle, why that happen? That happen always in my country. In the camp, they tell us that don’t happen in United States. They tell us no one ever do that because of your skin. They say all that matter what you can do. That happen here, Michelle? People do that here?”

And then I had one of the most unenviable tasks I’ve maybe ever had, of telling Anwar that while the United States is a country where people can make a good life for themselves if they work hard, and even though it is illegal to not hire somebody because of what they look like or where they’re from, it does happen sometimes. It’s not okay, but it does happen. I felt exactly like what I would feel years later as a parent who has to be the one to break a hard fact of life to their child gently so they don’t hear it more harshly somewhere else, but who sees the innocence fade from their eyes like embers in a fireplace.  And maybe that is also a reason I’ll always remember Anwar.

I ran into one student, Peter, about 7 years later, receiving his citizenship at the same ceremony as my husband. Imagine, out of that whole basketball arena, and of all the basketball arenas of citizens that are made every month or so in this city, and had been for all those intervening years, the coincidence of getting see him there so many years later, dressed up in his suit and tie, towering head and shoulders above everyone in the room, and taking his oath on that special day. I don’t keep in touch with any of my former students. Several of them moved to different cities. Life got busy. I’ve never been able to find them on Facebook.  By now, many of them are probably residents or citizens.  Some may have returned home. But I do wonder about them from time to time, especially recently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *