If language weren’t a barrier with my students, I would tell them, I like the best of your country that I see in you. The parts of your cultural personality that have been hammered by evil governments. I would tell you that I see the best parts of your people in you.
The Afghani women: I see your veiled strength. You bore 6 children with never an epidural, in the harsh desert without good hospitals. You cook every meal, every single day. You’ve been on your feet in the kitchen since age 10. You must be chaperoned in public. You always defer to your husband. I see how taxing life is from the time you are married at a young age. Your face is 15 years older than mine, but in truth you are 10 years younger than me. With every year your burdens compound. But I see your strength.
I see how you pull the head scarf of your hijab a little tighter when you’re nervous. When I ask you to speak aloud in English. It’s so hard to be vulnerable in public. You are so unfamiliar with that idea. I see you trying to adjust to our American expectations while keeping your standards of discretion. And I applaud you for choosing to live in that tension.
To my Burmese students. I see your gift for hospitality. Should I come to your home you would unroll the red carpet. And I have come to your homes, and you treat me like royalty. Once when I visited one of you there was only pancake batter in your cupboard. I stole a glance when you opened the cupboard. Nothing there but a box of pancake batter. And so you made me pancakes. And they were the most delicious pancakes I’ve ever tasted. I choked back tears as I ate them because of your humility and vulnerability. The willingness to show all your weak cards for the sake of someone else’ comfort. Americans know nothing of such humility. We would rather hide our weakness; we would close the cupboard and lie. We deceive ourselves that we are strong because we have money and a certain level of freedom.
But you look more like God to me. Your softness. Your meekness. Your simplicity. These are the ways of Christ. These things about you astound me and shake me from my insulated, privileged American discontent.
If language were not a barrier I would gather all my Congolese students around me on a front porch one evening and we would shoot the breeze and tell jokes for hours. We would laugh and drink and whittle time away till the sun came up. If language were not a barrier. You are the most light-hearted, affable people I have ever met. With nothing but time to offer your friends. You tell me, “Americans are too busy.” And then you laugh because the joke is on us. And your observation is exacting and convicting.
By way of contrast, I have seen my own hurried reflection in your ease and relaxed approach to life. You are changing me, that’s what I would tell my Congolese friends.
And finally, if language were no barrier I would tell my refugee students this: you’ll be in my writing for years to come. By some mysterious way of God, you–the refugees of the world– were a piece I needed for some novels that need writing. I have at least two novels bursting to be born in me, and I needed to be an English teacher to adult refugees to get some essential pieces for those novels. I’ve been taking copious notes this year and a half of teaching you English.
My students, your English will continue to improve. And one day I’ll hand you my first novel. You’ll read it and see parts of yourselves in the characters. And you’ll know my depth of gratitude.
I once heard a pastor say: “Do you know who is most excited on Christmas morning? Not the wide-eyed child, not the woman who thinks she might get an engagement ring. But the giver. The person who knows he’s giving THE perfect gift is the happiest person on Christmas morning. When you give a great gift, you are the happiest.”
Those words rang through my mind when I got the opportunity to deliver the perfect donated gift to one of iACT’s refugee students.
In addition to teaching English with iACT, I am a free-lance writer. For the last 6 months, my main writing project has been about refugees who resettle in Austin. My photography partner, Ashley St. Clair and I have been collecting life stories from the refugees in iACT’s ESL program. We plan to introduce Austin to these incredibly courageous, tenacious refugees through dignified portraits that Ashley takes and through my provoking, written vignettes about their lives. In order to write the vignettes, we must interview the refugees to hear their stories. Last month Ashley and I interviewed Lambert, an 18 year old from Tanzania.
Lambert was born and raised in one of Tanzania’s largest refugee camps. He is 18 years old. He has never experienced any life outside of a refugee camp, until now. Lambert, his six siblings, his mother and his father arrived in Austin, Texas three months ago to resettle and make a life here. As Ashley and I interviewed him (through an interpreter) it became very clear that Lambert is passionate about music. So much so that in the refugee camp he would sneak into the makeshift church and teach himself to play the songs he heard during church service. “Something inside me had to play what I heard. Something in me must play music. But I must learn the skills of music. I don’t know the music notes. I want to play music all the time.”
After the interview with Lambert, Ashley and I turned to each other and said at the same time, “We’ve got to get Lambert a piano keyboard.”
It took exactly two days to acquire a keyboard for Lambert. I sent an email out to some friends asking if someone had a keyboard they would like to donate. Some friends forwarded that email. A woman I’ve never met was so moved by Lambert’s humble beginnings that she went right to Straight Music store and bought him a brand new keyboard, stand and headphones. And I got the privilege of delivering this gift to Lambert.
Lambert’s whole family greeted me and Ashley in their parking lot when we arrived with the keyboard. His little siblings jumped up and down when we they saw the keyboard box, as I pulled it from my trunk. Lambert’s bright white teeth proved his happiness. He couldn’t stop smiling. He took the keyboard from me and we all went into his apartment. Six sets of hands tore open the box in less than 30 seconds. Then Lambert hushed them all and took his keyboard to the kitchen table. He plugged it in and put on the headphones. And then he disappeared.
It was as though he closed a door. He was still there in the room, but he wasn’t. He was deep down into his own happy place of musical discovery. He was playing his new keyboard and he wasn’t about to stop.
When Ashley and I finally left, Lambert was still at his keyboard. His mom had to nudge him to wave goodbye and say thanks.
But Lambert didn’t need to thank us, and the woman who actually bought the keyboard said, “Tell him he doesn’t need to thank me.” She got the point and so did we. Lambert’s ardor for musical discovery was thanks enough. As I drove away, I realized I hadn’t stopped smiling all evening. I wished everyone I knew could have been there with me to deliver that keyboard. I know a lot of people who need that kind of high…the high that only comes from giving.
I considered again the irony about giving things away: it actually fills you up. To give, is to get. “The generous will themselves be blessed.” Proverbs 22:9. Such concentrated wisdom in that simple line. Giving a good gift feels almost healing. Feels like scratching an itch that nothing else can get at. It feels like you hit the target, the bull’s-eye…the main ingredient to happiness.