Every Refugee Has a Name

This week’s blog post comes from a long-term ELIC teacher who spent his summer serving refugees in Iraq through teaching them English.

Every Refugee Has a Name

I had an opportunity this past July to take a break from teaching in Laos, travel to the other side of Asia, and teach English in an Iraqi refugee camp. This post is an attempt to try and express my feelings about my time in Iraq. It’s a time I will most definitely never forget.

A Land at War

The heat was the first thing I noticed as I stepped off the plane into Iraq. Growing up in the southern region of the US and living in Laos has helped me tolerate heat fairly well but never believe someone who tells you 108F degrees is no big deal. That’s hot. We had a full two days to adjust to our new surroundings before teaching began and it was a strange time. It was surreal to stand in a country so often in the news for war and bombings and yet see normal people go about their normal lives. Cars drove by as people headed home from work. Families shopped for food at stores. Friends grabbed a bite to eat at the local shawarma shops.

Driving into the refugee camp, however, was a stark reminder of the reality that Iraq faces every day. This is a land at war. In the confines of this camp were 18,000 people who, for the past two years, had not seen their homes. They had been completely driven from of any kind of lifestyle that would feel normal to them. It was an orderly and clean camp but that doesn’t change the harshness of knowing that each tent held a family completely uprooted from their way of life.

What am I supposed to do here?

Walking into my classroom for the first time was overwhelming. Before me sat 20+ nervous, pre-teen students and it became all too clear that their knowledge of English pretty much matched my knowledge of their own language. Teaching them English was going to be hard but I already knew that. What I didn’t know was the emotional weight that was going to come with teaching them.

The three hours I spent in that classroom that first day filled me with despair.

“What in the world am I doing here?”

“Even if I can teach them English, what good will come of it? These kids need a home, not a summer English course.”

I began to think there was no way I could face these kids for a month. Every time I looked at them I imagined what they must have gone through and I would remember what I was doing when I was a pre-teen. The comparison was almost too big to imagine.

I sat in my hotel room that first night knowing I had made a mistake. How silly of me to think that I could come into their country and do anything that might help these people.

Then my heart changed.

I was reminded that night of something that had been a life-changing force in my own life and I realized it was the only thing that could bring anything of value to these people. I was there to teach English, yes, but I was there to give something so much more important. I was there to show love. Simple? Yes, but so very powerful.

I knew that I had to show the kids in my classroom love above anything else. Why? Because these kids had seen more evil than any person should ever have to see. They had seen evil in a real, life-threatening way. An evil that had literally ripped them from their homes only for them to escape and find a world that would turn their backs on them. Despite seeing their pain more clearly than ever before, the world as a whole had sent a message to them that they were not wanted or cared for. They would be forgotten.

I knew what I was supposed to do for my month in Iraq. I had a chance to remind these kids that there is good in this world. There still is love even for them. Despite all they had seen, evil had not won.

Love changes things

Things started to change for me after that first day. Yes, I was going to do my absolute best to teach them English. That was, after all, the reason why we had been invited there and there are few things I love more than teaching English. But I was also going to make sure that every single one of my students knew that I not only saw them but that I also cared and loved them. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t speak each other’s language, I was going to make sure, whether through a smile, a game of frisbee, or a pat on the back, that they knew they were loved. And that’s what I set out to do each and every day that I taught.

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Before long, I found myself eager each morning to get to my classroom because it meant I had three more hours to show love to those kids. Each moment was valuable.

Things changed for them as well. It was awkward for them at first but before long they began to get comfortable with us. Attempts to communicate happened. Invitations to join them in their groups during break were offered. Hand shakes, smiles, and laughs became common in and outside of the classroom. It was a beautiful thing because even when there are few things to bring someone together you can always count on love to step in and help.

Don’t let me fool you, we weren’t the only ones showing love. The people in that refugee camp were some of the kindest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Words cannot explain how well we were taken care of during our time in their school. Once we were invited over to a house where we were served a meal that could’ve fed a group three times our size and yet all the hosts could talk about was how they wish they could treat us in their own homes and cook us more traditional food. All they wanted was to treat us as honored guests to thank us for being there. Often their expressions of love were too much to take in at once. People who had seen so little of love had somehow found the strength to overwhelm us with their own love. People who had every right to think of only themselves chose instead to focus on us and make sure we felt comfortable and appreciated.

It was a world-shattering thing to experience. An experience that I hope I won’t recover from.

We came to teach English and English learning definitely happened while we were there. I don’t think I will ever forget the shouts of joy of our students as they received their graded homework (with a big checkmark). At the end of the month, however, I felt more joy in my heart knowing that the kids in my classroom knew they were loved. It was evident in the hands that held mine those last few days. In the notes and gifts we received from our kids, from the local teachers, themselves refugees, who told us they were thankful that their kids once again were remembering how to play and have fun again. Despite everything, love was felt that month in Iraq.

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