Please Show Mercy to Foreigners: A Letter from an ESL Teacher of Refugees

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I only know a few words in Swahili, but one of them is barabara, meaning street. It sounds like sandals on cobblestone, like dust curling into bold sunlight, like wheels popping over cracks in the pavement. My students, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, use this word when we are discussing addresses in English class, and the intense syllables bounce around the room with their own rhythm and beat.

Before we make America great again, we need to understand what America is. America is a patchwork quilt of skin tones and cultures, a crochet blanket of ideas and clothing styles and seasonings for home cooked meals. America is a book with chapters we wish we could rip out, a novel with imperfect characters and flawed heroes—a poem where the title and the final line are the same.

I had stereotypes about Saudi Arabia—stereotypes that were drunk on terrorism fears and overshadowed by my own pride and congratulatory feelings about being born in America. Then I met a young man, a Muslim, a clever student who was talkative and articulate both in English and Arabic. One day, I was observing his classroom for a school assignment, and the teacher caught him staring wistfully out the window. “What are you thinking about?” she asked. Glassy-eyed, wistful, homesick. he responded: “I was thinking about Saudi Arabia.” And I realized he loved his country as much as I loved mine.  

And what are refugees? They are not panhandlers, freeloaders, people grazing from your paychecks because America seemed like a good vacation spot. They ride their bikes to English class in the cold, they miss their festivals and cassava bread. They have packed their life up into a thimble and come across the water in a thought bubble—and they do not need us to save them from their culture.

A refugee from Burma told me part of her story about being a nurse and a midwife, endangering her life and bloodying her hands for the sake of strangers. Then she paused next to a sink where she cut potatoes and chopped chicken for the customers up front: “Then we come here and we’re stupid.”

Jesus, my Lord and Savior, the King who has ridden over the waters to rescue me, who revived me from blind wanderings—this God made me part of his family, part of his community, even though I should be an outcast. And now His mission for me and you is “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yolk, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” (Isaiah 58: 6b-7) He gave no conditions about their nationality, race, religion, or ways that we limit the reach of our hands and ration our love.

When my university class was skyping with students in Ukraine last October, one girl told us about the bombings. I could imagine the rumble, the cracks, the earthquake rain and tornadoes of rubble. Then she mentioned the election and told us to think of them, the people halfway around the world, before we cast our votes on November 8th. Because they were watching us—waiting—knowing that our votes could set to motion a rolling tide of grace or increasing terror around the world.

Do we understand the people that we are judging, the people whose hands we are ripping away from our ‘national treasures’ because they look a little too much like foreigners? I do not even begin to understand them. I make wrong judgments, judgments based in pride and supremacy and selfishness every single day. But they are teaching me, in their silences and in the words in Swahili or French or Karen or Arabic that I can never understand, or in the broken English that I can piece together.

In the eyes of a teenage crystallized, oh the prettiest of lights that hang the hallways of the home. And the cries from the strangers out at night—they don’t keep us up at night, we have the curtains drawn and closed. –Imagine Dragons, “Dream”

This letter is not for one person—not for the president, not for right-wing conservatives or Libertarians or liberals or people who have never registered to vote. This is for those who will listen. Right now, America is set to endure a period of three months in which people from certain Muslim countries will be blocked from entering the United States, and about four months in which no refugees will be permitted into the country. This could very well cause local institutions that serve refugees (by providing housing services, job placements, and ESL instruction) to lose funding. This will result in a loss of jobs for the people who work at these establishments as well as severed connections and a loss of resources for those who are learning how to live in this country.

Let’s learn how to love people we do not know, understand the things we have trouble accepting, and listen to the story of someone we cannot personally relate to. Let’s trust that God will give us mercy enough to embrace the idea of an America that reaches over border walls and across oceans and through language barriers and into the very concepts of home, trust, and love.

So I ask you, as someone who works with refugees on a regular basis, to do something. If you are handy at political activism and raising awareness, then share information about refugees and immigration on social media, call your representatives, and talk to your friends. If you have time on your hands and a hands-on heart, volunteer by tutoring English or helping with cultural orientation with your church or in your community. If you realize that you don’t understand the United States’ policies on immigration or the vetting process, read more about it. Talk to people who have been through it. Learn about citizenship. Read stories about homesickness and love of country and the pain of tearing your heart and life away from a place you once called home.

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

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