Comfort Zones (Part 2)

With trepidation, we walked into the room.

“Full” was my first reaction — as in the room was packed with students and tables and bags, so much so that chairs had to be scootched, bodies had to shuffle-over, and backpacks had to be surmounted. I made sure to smile, though it was tense and obviously forced, as I made my way over the obstacle-course-of-a-room and into a chair by the window.

As one teacher asked for the students’ attention in order to introduce us, another reprimanded three boys for speaking Kurdish to each other. That may have been when it actually dawned on me, the situation in the room. Three boys had cheeky smiles on their faces and assumed the same defensive it’s-not-me posture as all of the students I’ve ever corrected. Some things are truly universal. The teacher made clear that the boys were not allowed to speak Kurdish in this classroom, part of the rationale being that of acclimation — in order to exist here you must try to speak the language of this place. Ironically, though, English — the same language of “the great evil,” America — happened to also be the most inclusive for all of the students and neutral, and because this is true, it had to be the lingua franca.

One by one our names were introduced to the class. As my name was said, “Ginger,” I waved and was met with giggles and kids looking at the teacher and asking “Ginger?”

“Yes! Her name is Ginger.” The teacher sheepishly grinned and explained that they had just learned that word this week during their lesson on foods. The students looked curiously at me, and once again I thought, “Universal.”

The students were asked to introduce themselves — they went around the room and said their names, where they were from, and how long they had been here. They put their hands over their hearts and said their names, some of them very shyly, and I thought about what that gesture means. This is me. I am this identity. I’ve moved, but I am still here.

One by one we went around the table. Some of the more confident ones said something that they like or added their age. Some said “pleased to meet you” after their intros. Some of the ones whose native languages were so far removed from English, struggled with the instructions. They said their names, the teachers prompting them to finish the rest; “And where are you from?”

As international school members, we also were able to follow suit. “My name is Ginger. I am from Texas which is a state in America.” (mumbles) “I have been in the UK for six years.” The students who came with me also introduced themselves in the same way, though they also shared where else in the world they are from; one of them moved from the UK to the states and then back, her accent more American that British; the other had lived in Angola, Egypt, Singapore, and the UK (she, incidentally, identifies as an American because her parents are American, though she has never lived in the states). The fact that the UK, for the most part, is foreign to most of the people in the room did serve as a unifier. We all had to learn how to live here, so at least we had that in common.

After the introductions, we broke up into small groups, and we the visitors rotated through the groups to chat with the students. I tried my best to ask questions that they know the answers to: Are you ready for exams? Which one will be the most difficult (speaking and listening was the universal answer).

Before going into the room, the teacher had told us to avoid certain topics. Because our prep time was brief, we were left to draw our own conclusions about anxiety caused by them. The rules included:

Do not ask them about their home countries. (war torn; corrupt)

Do not ask them about their families. (left behind; still suffering; dead)

Do not ask them what they want to do in the future. (what can one hope for when all is lost)

Do not ask them about religion. (persecution; alienation; discrimination; worse)

Do not mention the police. (corrupt; brutal; untrustworthy; dictatorial)

Do not mention politics of any kinds. (corrupt again; oppression; economy; dictator; war)

Do not mention Trump. (leader of the “great evil”)

And so we were left with the smallest of small talk.

Some of the students were curious about Texas. They liked the words “cowboy” and “boots”. One student asked me what club I was from. I dodged the question because I didn’t want to say “Disaster Relief Fund” because of that implication. One student openly asked me if I’m a Christian. I hesitated before saying yes, once again, because of triggers, and he grinned and told me he was going to be baptized this Sunday. I remember being taken aback by that because he had said he was Iraqi. “Oh, “ I thought.”Oh.”

One of them told me he wanted to be a doctor, that he had taken biology, chemistry, and maths in Iraq. He asked me if I thought he could be a doctor here. I told him that yes, I thought so, and he retorted that his “English was not too good.” His mate, an Eritrean student who had been in the UK the longest smacked his arm and said, “You’ve only been here six months! You have time!”

The others fared a bit better than I did in their small groups. The two students we brought along were asked what they liked about living here. They were asked about their accents and if they had ever travelled to Vegas. They were asked what they thought about the American president and my kids spoke very candidly about their thoughts. It was clear that both parties were curious and taken with each other. My kids want to provide an opportunity for new friendships, to hang out and play soccer, to talk and listen. The refugee students were so happy to meet others their age, and they look forward to the opportunity to socialize with people who are not teachers or carers or social workers.

We left with smiles on our faces, all of us. I’m looking forward to helping facilitate social situations with our students and theirs, and I hope, somehow, we make a difference.

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