Comfort Zones (Part 1)

“Some of them have had such severe recent trauma that I should probably gage the room before you all come in to meet them. For the most part they’re lovely and are adjusting, but there are one or two that I need to keep an eye on.”

I felt my shoulders tense as the EOL (EAL) teacher approached the door that would open to a room of 25 refugee teens who have only been in the UK for a few months. This particular program is part of a local college, and they function as their own entity within it. The teacher, in our pre-meeting, called it an “academic project” and as students, they were learning, not only math and English, but also British citizenship, ideas like: tolerance (religious especially), equality, sexual orientation, class differences, self-expression, etc.- lessons in which we all could use a little refresher.

The Disaster Relief Fund at our school made this visit possible. Our students, contrary to what some believe, want to do more than simply fundraise. Many of them have hearts for service and really want to help others with their two hands, to get real grit underneath their fingernails, to lift people up and try to make a tangible difference. My job is to support them the best that I can, which is why we were meeting with this EOL teacher at this college, standing outside of this door wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a post about refugees in general, nor is it a post about religion. The students we were about to meet, aged 14–18, suffered through and survived significant horrors. None of them are here with family. All of them are either in foster care or live at the YMCA. They all meet with social workers during their free time. Many of them are illiterate, and all of them are still shell shocked, living in a country where language barriers prevent them from communicating, where normal family rituals differ, where the food is completely weird, in a culture that resembles very little of what they know.

It must feel very lonely.

On top of this, the reasons they are here vary: their home countries are in such turmoil that their families sent them away to survive; their particular religious sect is being persecuted and massacred, they escaped sex traffickers or war mongers, dictators.. death. These kids have experienced just about everything disastrous you can imagine in utterly shocked and devastated areas like Syria, or areas where conflict is rampant — Iran, for example, Iraq, and Eritrea. But the kids also hailed from more unexpected places like Albania and Hungary, Vietnam, Brazil and the Philippines.

The room had to be gaged because some weren’t coping well and triggers needed to be managed.

Also noteworthy from our pre-meeting, we learned that the staff were specifically very grateful to the Americans among us who were reaching out. We were told that for many of them America is the “great evil”, that this is what they had been brought up understanding, that for some bizarre reason, the UK had largely escaped the label met out only to the US, even though the UK foreign policy and diplomacy walked a very parallel, if not same line as the US’s. The teacher felt that if the students could just talk to some nice Americans, their views might change. For the most part, these kids had never actually met an American.. and we were going to be their first impression.

So, with trepidation we walked into the room. (to be continued)

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