For the past few years, I’ve been a tutor in an English as Second Language (ESL) program. Our congregation houses one of the ESL sites of a local non-profit; we work mainly with refugees and other immigrants. Many of the students have come through extremely difficult circumstances to arrive at this point in their lives. All of them see English proficiency as a major key to their well-being
That’s all by way of background for the real reason I’m writing today’s blog: I want to acknowledge the work of these students toward a good life here in their adopted country. Perhaps you will see here some of the same qualities in the refugees/immigrants in your acquaintance, and find here some words or phrases that are useful in your in-person affirmation of immigrants and refugees you meet.
Over and over, I see how these students continue to triumph over adversities—those from the past and those they face now. (Consider how working through the quirks of the English language could also be a kind of adversity!) Slowly-but-surely over years, these students gain a foothold in reading, hearing, speaking and writing English. One small step at a time, they come to master each of these related skills, approaching eventual competence.
I have never heard whining or complaining about the difficult work of literacy. These adults take on the hard work that is required, while also shouldering other demanding elements of life, like raising children, working at difficult jobs or finding transportation to the ESL site. Week after week, the students approach their learning tasks with eagerness.
As time goes on, our small group of ESL learners and tutors—a wonderful mix of ethnicities and cultures—has become a community of like-minded people. Strangers-at-first become appreciative acquaintances, then friends, enjoying laughter and fascinating conversations.
The students face their work earnestly, always appreciative of the help they are receiving. Those of us who are tutors are rewarded by the consistent gratitude and grace by which the students receive our assistance. All of us—students and tutors—feel like we’re working on these tasks together, exploring and discovering each key to understanding, and rejoicing together when another skill gets added to the mix.
These patient and steady learners also face the tasks of assimilating into this culture. For some, this can be difficult because American culture does not always reflect the best of the human spirit. We who are tutors are sensitive to this additional part of students’ work, and are especially appreciative of their struggles to understand the way of life that they are now part of.
I’ve written my observations here in a matter-of-fact way, but please understand that each of these characteristics of our students affects me emotionally, too. Their examples are beyond words, and they exhibit how I might also think and act in my daily life as a follower of Christ. In conversations over the years, I have tried to honor each student’s dignity and privacy, so have rarely expressed my admiration as fully as I’d like. Perhaps I need to cross that line every so often, though, so that the students understand that they are also giving me a gift—vivid reminders of the best of the human spirit, embodied in their admirable lives.
ESL students are the tip of a sociological and personal iceberg—more and more our country, our churches and our lives are filled with people like these sturdy learners. Their lives can be reminders and invitations for us to be humble and grateful. For us to give of ourselves so that these individuals—part of the world God so surely loves—will find comfort, safety and assurance in their journey towards satisfying lives.
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