Every Monday morning I volunteer at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. I teach basic English, and the one thing that I have learned to build into every lesson plan is that the lesson will almost certainly not go as planned.
Some days I have two students, other days 15.
Some days everyone has arrived just ten minutes into class; others there’s a slow trickle, and my lesson adjusts/stops/restarts as the room slowly fills.
Some days the majority of my students speak some English; others I am asked to review the alphabet.
One constant: the Somalian man who has attended every class I have taught, and whose birthday is exactly one month and one day after mine.
(I know this, because I have spent a not insignificant amount of time helping each student answer the question, “When is your birthday?” Something else I now know: the Afghani students cannot answer this question, though they tell me this is changing, and now birthdays are being noted in Afghanistan.)
My students have been from Somalia, Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq, Pakistan, Guinea, Liberia, Eritrea, Ghana, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Peru, and Cape Verde. They range in age from 19-46, though most are in their very early twenties. Almost all are men. To my knowledge, all are Muslim.
They study English in part to make themselves more employable in Italy, and also because they hope to leave Italy – English will help them in Germany, in Norway, in Finland, in the countries where there are jobs, there is work.
Not one of them wants to stay in Italy.
I am a poor excuse for an English teacher – although years ago I worked in writing centres and volunteered as a literacy tutor, I am ridiculously inexperienced for a class that, I think, would challenge even an experienced teacher.
But one thing that has comforted me as I stumble though my learning plans:
While it may be the case that my students will only learn a tiny bit of English from me, one thing I can guarantee is that, for the one and a half hours a week that I teach them, they can sit comfortably in a (semi) warm room where they are welcome, where they have a purpose.
I smile a lot. I say: “Excellent!” “Fantastic!” “Great!”
I want them to feel that they are students – that they have the right to be students.
I can’t share photos of my students, or even their names. But I thought I’d share some conversations from class, and from the centre, and even from the streets of Rome- where young African men stand at regular intervals outside cafes and supermarkets, cups in hand, having traveled so very far to be so reduced.
Outside the centre:
Afghan man, early forties: “How are you?”
Me: “I’m good. How are you?”
Afghan man: “Surviving. For refugees this is how it is – surviving.”
Class discussion – subbing the English advanced class, two weeks after the initial Muslin ban:
Somalian man, early twenties: “I have an aunt in Minneapolis.”
Me: “There’s a large Somali community in Minnesota.”
Somalian man: “Yes, I know. It was my dream to go there one day. But- how would you say? Now that dream is gone.”
In the centre, in the large basement room that serves as the hang-out space:
Afghan man, fiftyish: “I’ve been here 9 years. I don’t have work. This is no kind of life.”
Various interactions, on answering the question “Where are you from?” with “Canada.”
“Canada! The best! My favourite! Take me to Canada!”
Clasping my hand: “Canada! I love Canada!”
“In Canada, people are very good, very kind.”
“Canada! Which part – French or English?”
“I want to come to Canada. Very much.”
“Canada- is good! But cold, very cold?”
“French or English?”
“I think Canada is the very best. I wish I could come to Canada.”
“You are the best. Thank you, Canada.”
Class brainstorm exercise with advanced English class.
A city of art
Weather is nice- sometimes
In class, a lesson about family members:
Young Afghani man: “Come si dice ‘Morti’ in Inglese?”
Me: “…. Dead. Morti is dead.”
Young Afghani man: “My family is dead.”
Another day, another lesson about family members:
A woman my age, from Cape Verde: “How do you say– a wife whose husband is dead?”
I write it on the whiteboard: widow.
Every conversation about Italy:
“It’s better in Germany.”
“There are no jobs here.”
“I want to go to Norway.”
“My brother is in Germany.”
“I was in Finland six months, I got sent back.”
“I was in Germany one year –”
“I was in Sweden-”
Lesson about food
Me: “Do you like Italian food?”
Every student: “No.”
Me, pointing to where I have written the full sentence on the board: “No….”
Students: “No, I do not like Italian food.”
Afghani student, last day of class before leaving for Germany:
“I would like to buy you a café. In Afghanistan, you are my teacher, you are very good teacher, I give you big meal. Here- I can only give café. Please, can I buy you a café?”
(After some back and forth, I let him buy me a café. He thanked me.)
A few years ago, after Alan Kurdî’s picture appeared in the newspaper (a picture that still haunts me, as I suspect it haunts us all), I attended a talk at a local church about private sponsorship of refugee families. In Canada, any group of private citizens – a religious association, a community group, even just a collection of friends – can apply to sponsor a family.
The church was packed. Truly. It felt like all of Victoria had turned out.
The minister was clearly moved to see the interest, but he was also pragmatic. “Sponsoring a family is a huge time commitment,” he warned us. “It’s best done by a small group, who can really devote themselves to supporting the family.” Noting that sponsoring a family required a huge fundraising effort, he gave some advice. “If you don’t have the time – please don’t think you do. Please give money instead.”
Standing there, I thought: he’s talking about me.
I gave money instead of time. And there was no shortage of known sponsorship groups to support: our synagogue sponsored a Syrian family, as did Jordan’s history department. Eva and Tillie combed through their clothing at the request of a friend whose Catholic church sponsored a family with two young girls; on Facebook I noticed images of other friends, waiting at the airport to greet the families they had worked so hard to bring over.
So much of this year off has been about having time, and I am grateful to have been able to spend some of that time at the Joel Nafuma Center. Jordan has also been volunteering there, meeting an advanced student once a week for coffee and conversation. I hope that we have been helpful. But I know too that our time -our help – is the definition of a drop in the bucket. When I pause to look at the big picture – I don’t see a solution.
(Actually, when I focus on the small picture -my individual students, the Nigerian man outside the PAM grocery, or the woman with a baby who sits on a bench outside Benetton – I don’t see a solution there, either.)
I hesitated to write this post, because – well, because perhaps we have enough writing by privileged white people about the time they volunteered with marginalized people of colour and all the tremendous things they learned.
On the other hand, I have been trying to steadfastly chronicle our year here, and this has been a big part of it.
Recently, I read George Saunder’s tribute to Grace Paley in The New Yorker. Paley is one of my very favourite writers, and it turned out that she had the words I was searching for. As Saunders relates, in Paley’s story “Friends,” one of the characters, Faith, reflects on her work tutoring children.
“Though the world cannot be changed by talking to one child at a time,” Faith says, “it may at least be known.”
Over the past few months, as I have volunteered at the Joel Nafuma Center, the world has become a little more known to me. I am grateful for that.