Dilemma #1: Asking Refugees to Remember

During teaching practice in the CELTA course, most of my students were international refugees. They included people from Japan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria, China, Somalia, Ivory Coast, and more. If you can think of a political or natural crisis that would have sent people running to Bangkok, the students in my TP (teaching practice) classes have probably been victims of it. They’re wonderful and extraordinary people full of compassion, wit, and hope. And they’re fucking smart! All this despite enduring unthinkable hardships in their home countries, some of them with little hope of ever returning to see their homeland, families, or friends ever again.

Take this one student for example. We’ll call him Maurice since I don’t feel comfortable disclosing his name on the Internet. Maurice is incredibly sharp and witty. His proficiency in English is remarkable given the little amount of time he’s been studying it (a little over a year). And he’s funny! He’s the life of the class. He brings a charming sense of humor and an innate desire to please. He’d like to go to university in the United States to major in math, and if not for a stringent and complicated (not to mention lengthy) immigration process, he could pull it off. With his level of intelligence, I could see him getting into a state university.

But behind his smile, clever wit, and inspiring hope lies the story of a kid stripped from a murdered family. I never inquired the details (I’m always afraid to ask), but Maurice is a victim and survivor of a violent political conflict in West Africa. The circumstances of this violence matter less than the fact that his parents and sisters were all killed, and now he remains in a strange city and may never return to the land where he grew up and formed memories with his deceased family members. What’s absolutely tragic is that we can actually say he was one of the lucky ones. Simply because he lives.

This is but one of the many stories I have come to know of these students. While teaching them, I ran into a bit of a moral dilemma, and even though the moment of crisis has passed, I’m still interested in hearing your opinions on the matter. See, a common practice in language teaching is to personalize the context, input, and language models students receive. We like to draw students into the lesson by asking them to discuss how they feel about something, or to use the language to relate details or stories about their family, or things along those lines. So in essence, we’re asking them to remember and share. We ask them to remember their family, their country, their childhoods, their friends, and much, much more. Keep in mind these are not therapy sessions, but language classes. The purpose is to exercise and practice English.

But whenever I ask my students to remember, I feel guilty. I feel guilty that I’m asking them to remember a country they probably can’t or won’t ever see again. I’m asking them to remember people they’ve may have been separated from – at best by geographical relocation, but more likely by violence.

I’m asking them to reflect on good memories, yes. But do they also feel a pang of sorrow with the happy memories? When they remember the prank they played on their sister, their mother’s birthday party, the football games they played with friends, or whatever else the memory is, do they also mourn the fact that they won’t be making new memories with these people?

So what do you think? Is it good for them to remember? Do they want to remember? Or was I stirring up pain in a smile?

 

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One thought on “Dilemma #1: Asking Refugees to Remember

  1. Your compassion shines by asking the question. In a short answer, yeah, I think it’s good to remember. Obviously it’s got to be taken on an individual basis, but I think remembering keeps us human, keeps us rooted, keeps us sane. I don’t know from this level of pain, nor do I care to, so my opinion is just that.

    I’ve read countless stories and oral histories by Holocaust survivors and each and every one insists on remembering. They find it imperative to not let that personal and collective history be forgotten or misremembered. That said, you aren’t asking them to remember violence. You’re asking them to relieve happy memories of time spent with loved once. Won’t those exercises keep those memories from slipping away? Which is worse, pangs of pain as you remember your mother’s smile, or realizing years later you don’t know what your mother looked like? Again, I don’t know this pain but I imagine if I were faced with that choice, I would choose to remember and be thankful to whoever asked me to.

    Like

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