Saturday, November 28, 2015

6 Things I Have to Say about Refugees, Including Why I Missed George W. Bush this Week

My friend Holly posted a quote by Alex Franzen this week that really struck me.

"There is a unique flavor of suffering you were put on the earth to alleviate."

Alex says that all of us have something that we are "compassionately angry" about.  I love this.

 I get scattered sometimes because I'm worried about a lot of things going on in our world.  But, I have discovered as I get older that I can maximize the difference I make if I focus my energy and attention.  We can all find that one thing and focus on how we can uniquely help in that cause.

For me, my cause is all about my refugee and immigrant students and families.  I'm used to defending them and explaining why they're here and why we should help them. I've done it many times in many different settings, including  family reunions  :)

One of the reasons I write this blog is so people can read the stories of refugees and immigrants and see how very much alike we all are. To diminish the idea of "the other." To see that we all struggle, and we all have hopes and dreams.  At the end of the day, we all want to live in safety and peace and make sure our children are cared for and happy.

I believe I can probably best show this human connection through the stories I tell here.  But, with all the events of the past weeks, I feel a pull to do a post in its entirety about refugees.  So, today I am going to post more explicitly on these topics-what I have learned from all the reading and study I have done over the years. All my experiences.   And, even more importantly, what I have learned from many, many conversations with refugees and their families- real-live people who have shared their stories with me and taught me so much.

Here is what I have to say:

1.  You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.

A certain person who enjoys national attention says that we need to keep Syrian refugees out because they are a danger to our national security.  To support this, he makes the claim that thousands of Arabs were cheering after 911 in Jersey City.  The mayor, the police and the governors of New York and New Jersey say it never happened. There are no documented reports that this happened.

This guy is the one who is dangerous and reckless, because right now he has a national/world platform for his hateful messages and he lies.  Call a spade a spade and a liar a liar.  He just admitted in an interview that he doesn't check his facts because he doesn't have time.  Enough said.

2.  Why does the discussion have to be so vile? and Why I missed George W. Bush this week

There is so much hatred and vileness being spewed on the issue of refugees and whether they should be allowed to come to our country.  I am astounded at the level of hostility and fear in things people are saying and writing.

The issue of refugees is the current topic that my son is debating with his high school debate team.  Last week I watched and judged four 1-hour debates on this topic.  They were reasonable.  They were professional.  They were courteous.  Nobody dehumanized a refugee. If 14-18 year-olds can talk about differences on this topic respectfully, can't we do a little better?

When the Paris attacks happened, I cringed for many reasons.  I cringed because of all the people who lost their lives and the fear and uncertainty inflicted on us all by terrorism.  I also cringed because events like this invariably lead to prejudice and retaliation against Muslims.

I am going to now post a video of George W. Bush giving a speech called "Islam is Peace." He made this speech shortly after 9/11 when anti-Muslim sentiment was running high.  Full disclosure:  I never voted for him.    I protested against the war in Iraq.  I disagreed with him on so many, many things. I think he had many disastrous policies that still reverberate today.   But this was a fine moment for him.  I love this speech,   and I wish we had more people of his party speaking out like this today.  I never expected to compliment George W. Bush on this blog, but for this 4 minutes and 17 seconds of his presidency, he got something very, very right.

Islam is Peace by George W. Bush

3.  Be consistent.

I was raised Catholic.  Although I no longer practice this religion, I have deep respect for what I consider the best and holiest parts of this faith:  love, compassion, forgiveness, service, and social justice.

However, I see a lot of inconsistency in what some Christian politicians, leaders, and others are saying.  I don't understand going to church on Sundays and professing love for God and Jesus Christ and then taking a stand against refugees on Monday at the office.    Religion should not be theoretical; it should be put into loving and bold action.

I am not a biblical scholar but my friend Cathy knows a little something about the Bible.  She says that "there are over 100 passages that mandate we welcome the stranger into our midst.  And, close to 2000 passages that encourage us to care for the widows, orphans, and poor."

Also, here is a quote from Hubert Humphrey. It's a message that I would like to give to the governors that want to deny entry to refugees and to the legislators who passed the House bill restricting them:

"It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

4.  Love will conquer fear.

Yes, I love quotes.  Because often others have said exactly what I want to say and it can not be improved upon.  From Marianne Williamson:

“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.”

I am so impressed with the open letter that some of Minnesota's legislators wrote to Syrian refugees, welcoming them.  Those who had courage during these times and acted out of love instead of fear will be remembered.  

5.  Listen to a refugee's story.

It's easy to think of people as "other" until you are face to face with them and you listen to their story.  I think the best advice I have for anyone struggling to understand the refugee experience is to spend some time with a refugee listening to their story.

These are some of the stories I have listened to over the years:

"We had an upper class lifestyle in our country. We had friends, a community, a life.  We went to restaurants. But, things changed.  And, finally, we had to come here to give our family a better life.  We don't have much here.  We've lived in shelters. We don't know anyone. It's hard to get used to."  (from a mother)

"My father was killed in our country."  (from a 13 year old)

"There were bombs falling all  the time.  Our family left our house and  country with nothing- not even a backpack." (from a 12 year old)

How can you not be stirred by these stories?

6.  Life is arbitrary and unpredictable.

In a grand and cosmic sense, I'm not sure why I was born in the United States to a family who had the resources and love to raise me and give me a great life.  I feel lucky.  I have so many choices, so many freedoms.  But, you never really know what life holds for you.  Or what you might need to do to go on.

The eloquent poet, Warsan Shire, reminds us:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

If something happens here one day and I need to leave or flee this country, I hope that another land and another people might open their door to me and say....

I'm so sorry you had to endure that.  Come in.  

You'll need some extra help for a while.  Come in.

We see you with compassion.  Come in.  

You are part of our human family.  Come in.  

Come in.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Holding Space

Recently, I've seen the phrase holding space a lot. It resonates.

Heather Plett says this, "What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control."

Ahhhh, I see. I don't need to fix everyone's problems? I can sit with them. I can cry with them. I can hold their hand.

Last night we had parent-teacher conferences. The last conference of the night took an unexpected turn when our student began to pour his heart out about all the hurt he had inside. It was like a dam of emotion and pain had been released. He admitted that he was putting on a happy face and acting like things were okay. They are SO not okay.

"You think I don't know, but I know everything." The mom had been valiantly trying to shield her son from some of the awful, but in the end, it doesn't work very well. Kids know.

Some of it will likely get better with time, but a big part of it won't. His mom said, "I give him permission to be this sad and this angry because what has happened is something that no child should have to go through. But what can I do?"

All you can do sometimes is be there for people. Walk alongside them. Tell them you're sorry they're hurting. Listen. Cry with them.

That is what my colleague did with this family for well over an hour last night. We held space. We told the mom and her son that we would be there for them, that we would do whatever we could that might help. But in the end, I know that just being a loving presence will be the greatest help.

There was one point of much-needed levity during this difficult conversation. The younger brother was there but he was immersed in a game on his Ipad. Suddenly he looked up to see his mom, brother, both teachers, and the interpreter all crying, very somber.

"What is this? What has happened to everyone?" he said looking around at all the tear-streaked faces, completely bewildered. We all laughed- It was pretty funny that it took him so long to notice something was going on. Laughter through tears.

I went to bed thinking about this family I woke up thinking about this family. Oh, how I wish I could fix all their problems.

More advice from Heather Plett: "Create a space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others."

In the end, I believe it was such a good and healthy thing for our student to get all of this out. I can take some solace that we have created the environment in our center that would lead to him feeling safe enough to break open like he did. I give my colleague, who spends the majority of time with this student, enormous credit for creating this atmosphere. It's one of the things she does best and most beautifully.

So, for now, holding space will have to be enough. And, it's a lot. It really is.

How to Hold Space for Others by Heather Plett

How to Hold Space for Yourself First by Heather Plett

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How Perspective Changes Everything

I went to a professional conference last Friday.  It was so great.  I came back inspired, enlightened, refreshed, fired-up and re-committed to the English Learner field, teaching, and my students.

 Then I looked at the note from my sub.

This was a very hard day.  I tried.  

This is the only note my sub left me.  Yikes. According to our para, she also had some disparaging things to say about my students (whom she spent 1 day with) and me (whom she has never met) at the end of the day.

 I don't like to have subs and I try not to be gone because it's a unique teaching position and a lot of people don't "get" this group.  I asked our para, our bilingual specialist, and one of our volunteers who were there on Friday how the students were, and they all said they were actually pretty good.

It got me to thinking how perspective changes everything.  Our para, bilingual, and volunteer know and appreciate the kids.  They understand them and where they're coming from.  I don't doubt that some of them were super challenging for the sub and it was not an easy day, but life really can come down to whether you're a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person.

So, I'll stick with my glass half-full perspective.  Here are the 10 reasons my students are AMAZING!  True stories from just this school year.

1.  "It's OUR bathroom."

One day last week, another teacher came into our classroom and said that a bunch of our boys had just made a mess in the bathroom with paper towels.  He didn't know which ones.  I asked whoever was responsible to do the right thing and go clean it up.  Naturally no one moved a muscle.  Then one of our kids (who definitely had no part in this) said to his buddy, "Let's go clean it up."  His friend (also no part) said, "No! Why?  We didn't do it!"  Spectacular Student replied, "Well, it's OUR bathroom."  He got up to go clean it up, whereupon a few kids (the likely suspects) told him to forget it and that they would do it.  I believe they did this because this kid is so nice to everyone, such a friend to everyone,  that the guilt got the better of them.  If you know middle school boys,  a moment like this is akin to angels coming down and singing in your classroom.

2.  A Hug  Every Day

One of our refugee students who started with us a month ago looked more terrified and overwhelmed on his first day than anyone I can remember.  I could tell I would need to go really slowly with him and give him lots of time and space to warm up.

In the morning, I generally stand in the hallway and greet kids- sometimes with handshakes, sometimes a fist bump or a high five.   I give hugs if kids initiate them.  Usually it's the girls.  Often other kids notice kids getting hugs and start to want one too.  About two weeks ago, this kid approached me for a hug.  After I hugged him, he smiled hugely.  His hug style is  kind of a side-hug, and he lays his head on my shoulder for a moment and beams his great smile at me.

Now, when I see him in the hallway every morning, he makes a beeline for me and my hug.

3.  They appreciate my dancing and singing.  

We have music in our school over the intercom between passing time to signal there is 1 minute left before the next class (brilliant idea, by the way).  I can't sing and I can't dance but I frequently sing and dance during this music to make my students laugh and because it's FUN.

The time this year when they laughed the hardest was when I did a sing and dance along to "Baby" by Justin Bieber.  I agree- I really outdid myself on that one.

4.  Watching them do presentations on their countries

We teach the Newcomers a lot of things about American culture but we also place a high value on learning from them.  We weave in questions about their countries and their culture into the teaching we do.  And, the first project we have them do is a PowerPoint presentation about the country they come from.

These brave kids who have limited English skills stand in front of the class and show pictures and facts about their country. They're proud and it leads to greater understanding among the students.  Frequently, they play the national anthem from their country and sign along.

 I almost know the Kuwait national anthem by heart, almost.

5.  Being witness to kids with very different backgrounds building friendships

You will see the most unlikely friendships form in the Newcomer Center, and that is one of the most beautiful and amazing parts of this place.  It confirms my belief that if people just got to know each other a little better, there would be much more peace and harmony in this world.

I've seen best friendships grow between students from Turkey and South Korea, Rwanda and Iraq, China and Syria.  Every morning I see a girl from Mexico and a girl from Ethiopia hug and kiss each other on both cheeks, and it is so lovely, I can hardly stand it.

6.  Over 40 kids playing chess every afternoon

Without a doubt, one of the coolest things at our center is that chess is part of the curriculum.  Our para is a chess expert and one of our volunteers also helps teach the kids chess.  Every kid learns and then they are matched up and play each other every afternoon for 20 minutes.

Chess teaches math and logic, patience, calmness, how to be a gracious winner, and how to be a good loser.  When you are new to a country and learning a language as complicated as English, you don't always feel very smart.  Knowing how to play chess makes you feel smart; it can spark a confidence that is much needed as you struggle with the language.

I looked out at the group of 40 playing chess the other afternoon and felt my own wave of confidence that we were doing something special here with these kids and the game of chess.

7.  "Can I take this book home?"

We have students who are sort of oblivious to rules and never ask permission to do anything.  They sharpen their pencils when you're trying to teach a lesson.  They wander out of the classroom to go to their locker in the middle of class. They want to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water right after their 4 minute break is over.

 Then there are those students who do almost everything right.  They're always prepared; they quietly do their work;  They follow directions.  They ask permission to leave the room and only if they really need to.

Last week, one of our do-everything-right and very soft-spoken girls came up to us at the end of the day, and said quietly, "Miss, can I take this book home?"  She had taken a book off our reading shelf.  She said it so sweetly, so earnestly that it just melted your heart.

"Of course you can take the book home.  You don't even have to ask.  Take it. Read it.  Bring it back and get another.  Oh really, you're just so adorable, take all of them....."

8.  Rock-Climbing Heroes

We took the whole class rock climbing at a local park in October.  Every single one of them tried it.  Some had to be coaxed into it, but in the end, all of them faced whatever fears they had and did it. And, they encouraged each other.  And, they felt that sense of pride you get when you try something new and face your fears and actually survive.

9.  "If you have a question; if you need something, just ask E."

Last spring this boy came into our center and into my life and into my heart.  I think it's fair to say that he did not speak one word of English when he started.  But, we manged to connect; we managed to communicate.  Through gestures and pointing and smiles and laughing.  This kid was something special and had a personality that came through even without words.

He stayed close to me physically a lot. He was always right there.  During math, when we worked in small groups and I sat down with them, he actually leaned on me when I was showing him something new or correcting his paper.  I could tell he needed the comfort, the support.

Slowly, he began to learn English.  He began to blossom.  His cool and sparkly personality emerged even more. He got really good at chess.    Everyone loved him.  When he started back with us in the fall, it was shocking how good his English was.  He set about helping the new kids adjust- showing them how to use their lockers, how to navigate the cafeteria, how to play chess.  He started to have a signature saying, "If you have a  question; if you need something, just ask E...(his name here)".

When he told me about a month ago that his family was going to move to another state, my heart dropped.  Everyone cried the day he left and said beautiful things to him and hugged him.  I held him close at the end of the day and I looked in his eyes and I said, "You're going to be just fine-wherever you go.  You're an amazing kid. You're special."

He smiled his enormous smile at me and walked away.

10.  Oh, my God- you're LEARNING!  YOU'RE REALLY LEARNING!!!!

This year's students were really beginners.  I have had to keep adjusting my teaching and my lessons, going slower, reviewing more.  I've been worried because they didn't seem to be making a lot of progress.  So, I kept adjusting, kept tweaking, kept stepping back and analyzing my teaching,  kept trying different things to engage them.

Last week during class I started to realize that they were understanding phonics better.  Then they were answering all my vocabulary questions.  Then they were working on an art-related activity connected to the story we had been reading with real zeal and focus.  They were also starting to raise their hands and fight to show how much they know.

And, my head and heart started to explode a little.  I saw that they were LEARNING!  I could tell we had turned a corner and what a glorious and welcome corner it was.

You really do have to hang in there long enough to see the miracle happen.


At the end of the day, we can all do one of two things.  You can write down the 10 worst things that happened to you that day and focus on those things. And, you'll feel like hell.  And, that will be your reality, but it's just one perspective.

 Or you can write down the 10 best things that happened to you and you can zero in on that.And THIS will be your perspective, your reality.

I don't know about you, but I'll choose the latter every single time I am able to summon the courage and wisdom to do so.

  Try it.