From as far back as I can remember, copies of the National Geographic in my grandparents’ home fascinated me. Unfolding the maps, I placed my finger over cities with names like Yangon, Nairobi, Saigon. I looked at pictures of villages in Africa, in China, and dreamed of meeting the people there. For a girl growing up in the Texas panhandle, this was indeed a dream. Little did I know that the world would come to me in the faces of students from countries as diverse as Burma, Somalia, Kenya, Cuba, Vietnam and Iraq.
The first year I taught refugee students, my co-teacher and I had almost no knowledge of how to work with students from countries other than Mexico. Their families were placed here because so many are able to process beef for wages unheard of in their home countries without the need for much language skill.
My students are the bravest people I’ve ever met. From their drawings, a few photos, and their writing, I know that they’ve come from the kind of trauma most of us will never experience. Children from Africa came from a camp where home was little more than a tarp and a butane burner. Rationed food often ran out before resupply trucks came. Basic survival took most of their energy and school was a dream for other children.
Hawa, a beautiful Bantu girl who came from the Kakuma camp in Kenya, had never sat in a school until she came to the U.S. Teaching her to write her name in English was a revelation to her and she wrote it everywhere. Her enthusiasm for Texas extended to wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey over her hijab.
Tin, whose family fled warfare in her native Burma, handed her over a razorwire fence into a camp in Bangkok, convinced that she would find a better life in the U.S. In my classes, she tutored other students, hugged those who cried, and was a founding member of her Buddhist youth group. Others from Burma: ethnic minorities from the Karen, Karenni, and Chin cultures, joined the class and offered to share lunches out of their tiffins with their teachers.
Their smiles gave no clue to what they left behind: villages burned, family members murdered. Many were separated from parents, most from their best friends. They’ve had to quickly learn to speak and read English so they can translate for family and neighbors. One of our 14-year-olds was gone for a week because she had to translate the breast cancer treatment plan for an older relative.
When I’ve visited students and their families in what appears to be plain homes and apartments, I’ve left amazed at their creativity. The families have put up altars, rugs, tapestries, successfully grafting some of home into their new communities. Within their tightly knit neighborhoods they’ve built temples and mosques, joined churches, and celebrated weddings and funerals. But despite outward differences, these families want what we all want for our children: for the next generation to thrive and prosper.
Our refugee families help to make us a better school and our communities a better place to live because their belief in the American dream is a reminder of why our country is a beacon of hope to the world.
Shanna Peeples is an English teacher at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, Texas. She was named the 2015 National Teacher of the Year.