Since April, some friends and I have been teaching English Language Learning classes to a Congolese refugee community in Nashville with G.O.D. Intl’s Immigrant and Refugee Program. At the end of our first 8-week cycle, we asked the students for feedback on what they would like to learn next. One man, a father of 7 and French and Swahili teacher, said, “I would like to learn the English alphabet. If my wife has to go to the hospital, and they ask me her name, I want to be able to spell it.” A very valid point, one that immediately silenced me. Regardless of what lessons we may have wanted to move on to, it was clear: they needed to know the alphabet. Many others in the class echoed this request.
So we taught them the English alphabet, the letter names and their sounds. During one lesson, I worked with the man’s wife, teaching her how to spell her name. At some point, the man came over and started working with us. I stood between this couple in their 50s, listening to him say each letter, and her repeat after him. Again I was speechless as my eyes filled with tears, witnessing the humility of this family, displaced from their homeland over a decade earlier, learning a new language yet again.
All of the people in the class know many languages: their mother tongue (first language) and its multiple dialects, French (Congo’s official language), and Kiswahili (lingua franca of East Africa). Many of them know other languages as well, as they were refugees in countries surrounding the Congo for a decade or more prior to immigrating to the US.
As for me, I know English, and I’m learning Kiswahili. While a goal of ours is to teach them the English language and culture so as to be able to function in this society, another goal is to dignify them, and speaking Kiswahili with them is one way (among many) of doing this.
Classes always begin with a song and end with a prayer. We all recognize God’s nearness and so we give thanks. The first time we asked one of the students to pray to close, he looked at me and said, “In my mother tongue?!” I said, “Yes!” He smiled gently, excited and relieved to thank God with the words he knows best.
Most weeks after praying, a couple of people volitionally stand up to testify to their experiences--that just a few months after arriving in the US, they’ve been met by people willing to come to them and offer this service to them so they could be welcomed. They speak of joy (“just to see your faces”) and gratitude (“for seeing in us what we can’t see ourselves”). They always touch my heart--I don’t anticipate it and I can’t recover from it--it’s life-changing. They too have gifted me more joy than I can express. I’m so thankful we’ve been able to offer them safe space and friendship in the midst of our largely unforgiving society. And I’m so blessed and humbled to have found a place in their hearts. God may we not miss the lessons they have for us.
Global displacement has risen to 70.8 million (25.9 million refugees, 41 million internally displaced persons, and 3.5 million asylum seekers). Please pray and consider how you could help displaced communities where you live.