Why I Made Vegetable Soup for My Refugee Students

In addition (and in perfect compliment to) free-lance writing, I’m teaching English One a few hours a week to refugees from around the world.
I stand up in front of them everyday and I see the questions about me on their sober faces. But we have no common language. I’m teaching them English as fast as I can. So that they can ask me all their questions. So I can ask them all of mine. So that they can order food in a restaurant or read the labels at grocery store. This week in class we discussed vegetables. It was serious stuff. They took copious notes about the variety of peppers available to them here in Texas.
In your whole life you’ve probably never said the word, turnip as many times as I did in two days. Over and over again I had the students repeat the names…”bro-co-lli…carr-ots…po-ta-tos.” They were eager to learn it all. But food is only conceptual unless you taste it.
So on Thursday night I made a big pot of vegetable soup in my crock pot, packed with as many veggies as we have studied. And I hauled the pot to class the next morning. One volunteer brought fresh bread to add.
I ladled out soup to each refugee. Once every student had her soup I said, “OK, now tell me what is in Teacher Jess’s soup?” They slurped and literally shouted vegetables at my face in English, “Carrots!” “Green beans!” “Garlic!”
It was fast-paced and frantic. You would have thought it was an auction. There was no taking turns to speak. It was everyone at once. It was exactly what I’d hoped for. It was the first time I didn’t have to pry a timid English word or sentence from them. They were speaking English and didn’t have to think about it because their mouths and bellies were filled. It was out first exercise in trust, and it was the very first time I had ever seen some of them smile.

“Food is our common ground, the universal experience.” –James Beard