Questions Refugees Ask

An artistic break to work on a banner.

Just a few RECENT QUESTIONS from the refugees:

“When is Halloween? I never have this, my country.”

* * *

“Will snow come soon? October cold, no?”

* * *

“I need shoe, yes, if snow come? No sandal?”

* * *

Silence. Lots of thinking. Shakes head. Does not know how to ask the question, whatever it is.

A Problem and A Milestone


FOURTH in a series about helping refugees learn English. Here, students have a problem differentiating between HAVE and WANT and NEED. The same could be said for all of us, I suppose.

I walk around with a box of freshly sharpened pencils.

“Do you WANT/NEED a pencil?”
“No, Tee-cha.”
But when I pass them by, they jump up and reach into the box.

I come at it the other way.
“Do you HAVE a pencil?”
“Yes, Tee-cha.”
But when I pass them by, they jump up and reach into the box.

So something needs to happen with ‘have,’ ‘want’ and ‘need.’
That’ll be my homework this weekend, thinking that one through.

* * *

Meanwhile, today, a milestone. A student said my name!

There have been attempts in the past. I’ve caught them flying by on a breeze.

then the quick retreat to “Tee-cha!”

It’s a difficult name –  3 syllables, plus that tricky ‘r’ rolling into a short “i” before the uphill climb to the “l,” which some want to pronounce as an ‘r.’


But yesterday, while I sat sharpening pencils before class, a student here 4 months entered. Across the room, from a distance of 20 feet, she waved and called to me, straight out and bold as can be, “Hello, Mar-i-CAN.”

Like ‘American,’ but drop the first syllable.

That’s the closest anyone has come.
I’ll count it as a win. :-)

* * *

Click to see ALL the Refugee Posts

Nobody Knows Her Name

empty name tagTHIRD in a series about teaching English to refugees. Here, a major hurdle right off the bat.
* * *

We get a new student and nobody knows her name.

New students are usually brought in by the Director and introduced, but this one slips in. She and her husband wander around upstairs, lost and unsure where to go, until at last they spot someone.

“Class? English?” the man asks. The wife is escorted here.

We greet her warmly and want her to feel welcome, but she is unable to answer the most basic questions, like “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”

Most students arrive able to give at least that much information. Some even have their information memorized like a speech. You greet them with “Hello” or “Nice to meet you,” and out it comes:

“My name ….
I from…..
Two childrens.”

They say it the same way a soldier gives name, rank and serial number, like it’s the 500th time they’ve said it. Perhaps it is.

I sometimes feel like I’m standing on the dock at Ellis Island, my hair in a bun, a clipboard in hand, and they hope if they say the right words, I’ll let them off the boat. I’ll grant access.

But access has already been granted. Our job here is to help them step into it.

About half the new students recite a little speech. The rest just give their name. Not this student, though. This student says nothing. She looks at whoever is speaking, but no response comes.

I make three attempts. I come at it three different ways. No luck. All she does is nod at me. I get her going on some alphabet work

* * *

Names are very important. Once I have a name, I will use it, and often.

Please sit, _______.
Here’s a pencil for you, ______.
Here’s a notebook for you, _____.
Do you know A-B-C, _____?
Let’s practice, _____.
Here is “A,” _____.
Say “A,” _____.
Practice making an “A” here, _____.
Good job, ______.
“A” is for apple, _____. (show picture). “_____, say “apple.”
See you tomorrow, _____.

I may say her name 30-40 times before noon.

Saying students’ names aloud is important for more reasons than I can list, but just from a selfish standpoint, all this repetition helps me remember. That’s IF I learn the name.

Someone is sent off to find the Director, to ask.

* * *

At break time, we are still in the dark.

Muka arrives. She is late due to a doctor’s appointment. Muka has been a student for two months. She is a challenge. Nothing sticks. Newer students, starting at the lowest level, have come in and surpassed her. Her sporadic attendance does not help matters. Then one day a couple of weeks ago, when I had just about given up all hope, she signed in, printing her full name all by herself!

There is something about the nameless student than reminds of Muka. Muka used to give me that same wordless nod when she first arrived. Have they come out of the same culture?

An idea comes. I wonder if Muka can get the new student to say her name. It’s a long shot, I know. Muka’s native tongue is Kinyarwanda. Only 0.15% of the world speaks it.

I ask Muka to ask the new student her name. Muka’s English is very limited, so this is how this goes:

I say to Muka, “My name, Marilyn. Your name, Muka. What is her name?” There’s a lot of pointing that goes along with this, first at myself and my name tag, then at Muka, then at the new student. Pointing is a big part of teaching English. Forget everything you learned about it not being polite. We are talking survival here.

I make the request twice.

My name, Marilyn.
Your name, Muka.
What is HER name?

Muka strains to understand what I want, seems to, but isn’t sure.

“In Kinyarwandan!” I say.
That unlocks the door.

Muka utters something to the new student.
The new student brightens, smiles and responds to Muka.

The other students – from Nepal, Burundi, Syria – all smile and clap.

We have a name! SUCCESS!
Half-a-morning’s work, this.


SECOND in a series about working with refugees. Here, the challenge of assimilating someone who looks very different.

* * *

IN MAY, MINA CAME. She was the first to come completely covered, nothing but her eyes showing.

I am used to the women with headscarves. About 1/3 of them have their heads covered – the Iraqis, the Afghanis, the Somalis. A few are covered all the way to their toes – some in black, some in colors. But Mina is the first to have a face veil.

Mina comes and right away I like her. Maybe it’s the way she extends her hand to me, which is unusual. Normally, I initiate the greeting and the new student is shy and unsure. Maybe it’s her smile. Her face is covered, but her eyes are smiling and there’s a warmth there. Whatever it is, right there, in that first moment, there is something about her I like.

But she’s a curiosity, for sure. Later, two Latinas sitting to my right discuss Mina’s garb in hushed tones.

The younger one inquires.
The older one explains.
“No, it’s to not attract the husband of another woman, I think.”

This same conversation may be happening around the room various languages, I don’t know. My ear only catches the Spanish.

I wonder how this will all go, having her in the class. We are all on a journey together.

Mina and her family come from Sri Lanka by way of Malaysia, then somewhere else, then the Bahamas, which they thought was their last stop before Canada, but an agent absconded with their money and they ended up being sent to Ecuador, where they spent two years before coming here, not Canada.

Along the way, she picked up several languages and lost a child. When I communicated this last bit to the other students, there was an audible moan of sympathy.

Loss of a child is universally understood. No language barriers for this type of grief.

Her English is passable, even good. Her learning skills, superior. She takes notes. She sees connections between words. She recognizes similar constructions. When we, as a group, go for a walk & talk through the neighborhood, she asks more questions than all the others combined.

But here’s what made the BIGGEST IMPRESSION on me:

MinaThat first day, she arrives in the middle of a lesson about clothing. Toward the end of class, we take turns standing and telling the class what articles of clothing we are wearing. When it’s Mina’s turn, she stands without hesitation and tells us about all her layers, head to toe, including the overdress (which she only wears when leaving the house) and the face veil (which she only wears when a man who is not a family member is around).

First day in class, she’s addressing the elephant in the room. Golly, I loved that!

She knows she’s a curiosity and a stigmatized one at that. She’s more aware of it than we are. But she has taken hold of that truth and made choices of how to deal with it –  by taking initiative, extending her hand to the world to greet, facing head-on the objects of concern, sharing her joys and griefs, and allowing us to know her as a person and see her as other than just a stereotype.

Mina, the most-covered in the class, is not in hiding.
Did I mention I love that?

Working with Refugees

boarding the bus
It’s been on my mind to write about working with the refugees. This is FIRST in a short series. Here, while dressing and driving, I imagine what the refugees are doing.

* * *

8:35. plenty of time.
I fix my bedhead and think of them, hurrying to catch their first bus.

While I walked my dog through the neighborhood so he’d sleep the morning away, they were getting older ones off to school, strapping babies on their backs, taking younger ones by the hand, pulling shut their front doors and heading out.

I consider my bare face in the mirror and a sense of emergency sweeps over me, the need for mascara. I apply it, then I wipe off the excess a more stylish person could get away with. Next time I’m buying a less gloppy mascara.

I have my brief daily lament over not being more stylish and wonder if any of them think about these things.

I think of stuff I want to do when I get home later, the stuff I could do right now if I was staying home – the letter I could finish writing, the chapter I could finish reading, the airline tickets I need to buy. I set a reminder about the airline tickets on my phone.

I think of them, riding along, stopping every few blocks. I wonder what things are on their afternoon lists.

Downtown, they are making connections, getting on the bus that will bring them out to the highlands and drop them.

I puzzle over whether to wear the teal shirt or the red stripe. I favor the teal, but did I just wear that last Thursday? If so, will anyone care, except me? Maybe I’ll go with the red stripe. Ooo, wait a minute. Here’s the black. I forgot that one was clean.

I pack up my alphabet handouts, my props. Today’s letter is “B.” Ball. Banana.
Baseball bat (a miniature one from the Slugger Museum tour). Book. Bags (4 types). Bus, bed, broom, bicycle (pictures of these).

We will nail down “B” and probably spent a good deal of time differentiating it from “D,” which, in lower case, looks a lot the same.

b and d

D is for dog. They are all afraid of dogs. I learned this the last time we did a walk-and-talk through the park. What have dogs represented to them in the past? I wonder.

9 AM.
I push the button that opens the garage door.
I put my stuff in the back. I fasten my seal belt, set temperature controls, turn on my audiobook. Backing out, I pause in the driveway to survey the gardens.

I drive in comfort past the little airfield where flying lessons are given, through the upscale restaurant district and into the historic neighborhood with its tree-lined streets and big, old homes. The Baptist church on the corner there allows classroom space 3 days a week for the teaching of English to refugees. Three days a week I park my car at the curb and walk 50 feet to the church door to teach and again discover how much I don’t know about English.

It is the most satisfying work of my life. I have no explanation for this.

I wonder how much flak the Baptists have taken for drawing refugees here. I think about that at least once a week, especially when I spot some students coming up the sidewalk from the other direction, children in tow, all manner of dress and hijab. They are a sight, coming up from where the #23 bus leaves them off a few blocks away.

I haven’t a clue how to ride a city bus.

Nine months into this, I no longer see them as a block of people, but as individuals whose names I know.

They do not seem to know mine. My name is difficult for them. I have taken to wearing a name tag. Still, when they have a question or need assistance, they call me what they call all the English-speaking adults in the room: “Tee-cha!” But I’m the one learning a lot, seeing my routines and thought patterns in a new light.

* * *
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Teaching English to Refugees

Watching for Her

circle of chairs
In church
I glance over my right shoulder
to where I think I saw her once,
back row, far left.
right next to the side door,
where a person can slip in, slip out,

There was just that one night she came to group,
ended up sitting next to me.
Turned out we had a lot in common,
including that we belonged to the same church.

Group ran long that night.
Before it was over,
she was gone.
But I had jotted my name and number
on a slip of paper
and passed it to her.
I don’t do that with everyone,
but when I heard her say,
“It’s just been a very lonely two years,”
I was pretty sure I knew what she meant by that.

I’ve not heard a word.
She’s not been back to group.
I don’t think it’s because of me,
I conclude every time I get to wondering.

When you care about people,
it’s hard to know sometimes
when to act,
when to refrain.

Maybe she’s lost the paper.
Maybe she hasn’t.
Maybe she’s shy.
Maybe I should go sit over there
and when she comes in,
there I am,
what a coincidence!


There was just that one night,
but I look for her.
Every week
I’m watching.

I would write a blog post, except…

I’m teaching English to refugees and just bumped the number of days I’m doing that from 2 to 3.

I’m taking an online writing course through TSPoetry about mindfulness, so I have some reading and writing to do for that, and I’m paying attention better (because of the class) and you know that takes time.

I signed up for a half-share CSA (community supported agriculture), so I’m receiving a weekly box of whatever the farm is producing and endeavoring not to waste any of it, so that’s a delicious challenge that calls for some creative kitchen time. I hate to tell you the number of vegetables I’m eating for the first time ever.

And then there’s the morning letter writing still going strong, 5:30-ish to 8. Sometimes 4:30-7. Sometimes 5-8. Sometimes 4. Just depends.

Plus there’s an indicator light that’s come on in my car, so I have to dash out and have that checked this morning.

All normal life.

But I do have a post I hope to pull together and share here shortly.

Hope you are enjoying your summer!


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