This is my 21st year of teaching and every year, from the first year until now, I have had recent immigrant and refugee students in my classes.
They came from Bosnia in the 1990s, Kurdistan in the early 2000s, and Nepal, Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and countless other countries recently. They come from wherever there is disaster, war and oppression. I have taught the English Language Learners (ELL) classes for many years, and one of the side effects of doing so is that I have become fiercely protective of my students and their families. Fortunately, Borah High School has always been a welcoming place for these students.
I see, firsthand, how hard these students work to survive, how much their parents and the students themselves have sacrificed for their children and siblings. The parents are often employed in our schools doing custodial work even though many were professionals in their home countries. Many of the students also work at the school in the afternoons and evenings to help support their families and repay their passage to the United States. Yes, they repay that.
I hear and read their horrific stories. In their simple, beautiful English my students write about “peace” and “freedom” and “safety” as tangible things because they know how those words feel; they are not simply ideas to them.
I’ve read of unimaginable violence: children seeing their parents and family literally hacked to pieces in front of their 5-year-old eyes, children hiding in closets while hearing their mothers and sisters raped on the other side of the door.
I’ve read of heroic acts of courage from parents just trying to get their children to safety. One girl wrote about the last memory of her mother. She was 6 years old and as they were fleeing their home, gathering only what they could carry, her mother braided a gold necklace into her hair to hide it and calmly told her young daughter not let anyone know about it until she was in a safe place, and if they were separated, she should sell the necklace to survive.
I see them struggle to learn to read and write English, which for most is the third or fourth language they have had to learn. (There are nearly 30 different native languages spoken at Borah High School.) They come to school every day eager to learn, wanting to understand and grateful for the feeling of safety and the opportunities they have in the United States. Every day they stand and pledge allegiance to a country of which they are not citizens, and may never be because their true desire is for their home to once again be safe for them to return.
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I watch them interact with American students as they break down stereotypes and bigotry with every conversation. I’ve had a big, teenaged Idaho cowboy kid come to me after class with tears in his eyes after talking with a shy girl in a hijab about her experiences, asking if I knew her story and wondering what he could do to help people in other countries.
These students enrich our school and the whole community, and I am constantly amazed and moved by the willingness and desire of the students at my school to reach out to these recent immigrant and refugee students. I’ve seen their simple presence in the classroom create a climate of empathy and tolerance much greater than the community outside of the school and vastly more accepting than when I was in high school. They are a reminder that we are all immigrants and refugees of sorts, whose families fled something to arrive here, whether that be one generation ago or 20.
I hope that the fear, intolerance and bigotry I’m witnessing from some in our country does not become normalized and creep into the halls of Borah High School.