In this article I speak about my experience with educating immigrants and refugees, what I see in the classroom, challenges I see that my students/clients are faced with as they come here to rebuild their lives, as well as the culture shock they are experiencing.
But, before I get to my students and their families, I would like to tell you a little bit about me and my background.
I was born and raised in Macedonia, a little Balkan country that used to be a part of Yugoslavia and is the size of Vermont. My family and I emigrated from Yugoslavia right before the war started there to America. Last February we celebrated our 29th anniversary since we came to the USA.
I was in high school, my brother in middle school, and none of us, including my parents spoke any English. In fact, as soon as my brother and I learned a word or two, our parents relied heavily on us to translate and take care of the adult stuff, like doctor appointments, reading mail, writing bills, filling out documents.
Now, I was a teenager, 16, and I wasn’t having fun just like the other kids my age. I felt like I grew up very quickly and skipped a huge part of my childhood like being a teenager and doing all kinds of crazy things teenagers do. From an A student back home, a class president and involved in a bunch of extra curriculum activities, choir, scouts, mentoring younger kids, competing in poetry and so on, I came from school many times telling my parents that I had not spoken one word that day. I was afraid to look at anyone because I feared that they would talk to me, and I had no idea what to say or what they said in that matter. So, my dictionary was my best friend.
I experienced good and bad in school. I had teachers who really helped me and wanted me to succeed, but I also had a teacher that told me she had wished all immigrants would go back to where we came from, because she didn’t know what to do with us. On my school documents, my race was OTHER, and I had no idea what that was all about, because never before in my life race was an issue.
Since I was in kindergarten, I said I wanted to be a teacher, and that wish remained alive throughout my struggles here, and my experience as an ESL student in America made my decision easier as I decided to work with the ESL Department of Education. Out of 20 years in the classroom, 20 are spent working with ESL students (minus the semester I taught in a non-ESL class). I feel so privileged to have worked with students from so many countries, 72 up to date to be exact, and speaking many languages.
And if you think my story coming here as a teenager, not speaking any English, not having friends, not having any fun, was heartbreaking, you have heard NOTHING!
You have heard before, I am sure, teachers wear many hats: they are not just teachers, but social workers, parents, phycologists, counselors, and on and on…
Teaching students with many challenges, not just learning problems or physical disabilities, but students living in poverty, households where drugs and alcohol may be present, gangs, domestic violence….. I can go on….
Now, on top of all this, let’s add a few things: I have had students that have escaped death, war, killing, blood, running for miles to survive. I have had students that never before lived in a house with electricity and running water, students that spent years in a refugee camp, born there, students who fought or ran to be one of the first ones in line to get one meal a day or some water.
In the early 1990s, most of my students were from Ethiopia and some of the Asian countries like Laos and Cambodia. On the very first day of my job, I had a little girl, a 4th grader from Ethiopia, beautiful dark eyes, who was so proud of her brand new clean school, American outfit, but wondered why everyone was looking at her and laughed at her. It was a blue pair of men’s PJs. But, she was still beautiful in my eyes. I gave her a pencil to write her name, but she did not know what to do with it. Later in the day, I wanted to do a cut and paste activity, she screamed when she saw me with the scissors. She thought I was going to hurt her with this thing that must have looked like a weapon to her.
Another girl from Ethiopia, from now well-known and respected family within the community, she is a lawyer in Las Vegas now, started school on Halloween. This is when we had Halloween parties and parades. When she saw the masks, the costumes, the monsters and witches, she was terrified. She buried her face in my waist and cried the whole time. She was in 2nd grade.
Let me tell you about Juan, who fought with everyone who came near him. We learned he watched his father being beheaded by the cartels. He was in middle school.
Jose kept coming to my classroom during recess and lunch, wanted to stay after school, to help me, to clean my room or anything I would ask of him. I found out, I reminded him of his mother who he would not see for a very long time, if ever. She stayed behind as he and his father and sister crossed the border.
A high school student from El Salvador, who escaped with a bunch of men he never met before. Almost drowned swimming across a river, raped by one of the men. He lost 40 lbs. by the time he reached his mother’s doorstep, who didn’t recognize her own son. He was in high school when I had him and he attempted several suicides.
I will never forget the high school girl who hated going home, because her father gambled, and beat her, because that’s what they do back home. They sold their daughters for money.
I can go on and on and on about the times I have taken students or their loved ones to the doctors, prepare them for chemo therapy, make funeral arrangements. And they needed a lot of help, because they knew nothing of how things work here in America.
And I have milestones of happy stories, happy times like graduations from high school, college, quince eras, buying homes, even their weddings and christening of their children.
Now that I work with adults, I have found that the challenges are no less. Most of my clients now are from Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ukraine. We all know what is going on in these countries.
I have had students with multiple degrees from back home, engineers, lawyers, natural medicine doctors, philosophers, interpreters who worked with our US military.
I also have adults who have never held a pencil in their life. And those that are not used to following any rules, because they never followed any back home. Beside English, I teach these individuals Employability Readiness.
Large families, moms who always took care of their many children at home, but now they are told to put them in day cares in the hands of strangers, and they, eventually need to go to work.
I have families that are actually split. Half of them made it here, and the other half are still waiting for their paperwork to be processed. I have a mother from Aleppo, whose 15 year old son stayed behind for this very reason. Everyone else from the family is here but this boy and they had to come because they would lose their visa if they waited any longer. Is it fair of me to expect any progress from this woman in class? I am asking her to learn a new language while her mind is where her son is, in the middle of a war zone! And now there is a ban?! Will he make it? How much longer till the entire family is together? How dare I ask her to read and write and do any classwork when she has so much to worry about! But, she does, and she has made progress. They all have, and will continue with God’s will, because this is their home now.
THIS IS THEIR HOME NOW! I love the fact that our city is the home of so many New Americans. From the bottom of my heart, I thank Mayor Andrew Ginther for reassuring us that our city will remain a welcoming city to people from all corners of the world, no matter the race or the religion. I also attended the commissioners meeting with many community leaders, and appreciate the continuous work to protect our new neighbors, our brothers and sisters.
But, I also hear what our New Americans face every day out there. They are called names, or told to go back home just because they look or dress differently than others. Or worse! You have heard it all; I don’t have to repeat it. I would love to see what happens to the individuals committing hate crimes. In fact, I call for our local and state officials to implement harsher penalties for hate crimes. To challenge their colleagues to end hateful speeches against people who just want to live a peaceful life. It is their right! It is everyone’s right! We call them Human Rights!!!
And to close, and sort of send a message of hope to our New Americans, especially our youngsters: I have always been in awe that even in times of challenges, struggle, heartbreak or loss, we prevail. People from all cultures are now spread far and wide across the globe, but cultures and identity are honored, remembered, kept alive, so our new generations are aware who we are and where we come from. Each of our cultures, history and traditions are unique and beautiful. I am certainly proud of my Macedonian culture. And I know that my culture and the cultures of everyone else living here make America beautiful! This is what makes America GREAT! Keep your heritage; involve yourself with associations and groups that uphold great values. And dream big and invest in good education so that you can pursue your dreams, because the world of opportunities is limitless.
( Tatjana.Bozhinovski is the Contributing Editor of the New Americans magazine and an Instructor with Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services, Columbus, Ohio)