Over the past 16 months, I have had the absolutely unique and life-changing experience of teaching English to refugees. Up until this point in my career, I had taught both adults and children in Costa Rica and children at a bilingual school in Denver, Colorado.
When I embarked on a trip to Greece to visit refugee camps and help aid in English instruction there, I knew my TEFL journey now had an even higher purpose. Without an EU passport or a sponsored visa, you are only permitted to stay in Europe for 90 days. So, when I arrived back in the states, I began looking at different ways in which I could help the situation from home in Colorado. I didn’t think it would be sustainable to be traveling back and forth from Europe every 90 days for a couple reasons. 1.) It made no sense economically. 2.) It would be really hard to form a bond with students and have to leave so frequently.
So, my search for work in Denver began. I found a Non-profit that helps re-settle refugees within the Denver metro area and it just so happened that they were in need of an English teacher! Before we get to this part though, I want to talk a little bit about what it was like to teach English in a refugee camp.
Teaching English in a Refugee Camp
Teaching English to people who have had to flee their country due to war or any other sort of persecution is a whole lot different than teaching most students. For one, people living in a refugee camp usually have their days and nights mixed-up. Many people stay up all night and then sleep all day, making English class attendance very low. There’s also a lack of motivation in the camp. People don’t know when they will get out, nor where they will go, so it is quite common for people to just lay around all day. The lack of motivation, caused by lack of hope, factor keeps many away from English class.
Next is something that I had really never thought of before. There are many people in the world who have never learned how to read or write in their own native language, let alone another language. This was a barrier that I had never faced before. Prior to this teaching experience, all of my students had been literate in at least one language.
So, how does someone try to teach a new language to a person who can’t even fathom the concept of reading or writing? It is very difficult. On top of that, try teaching this new skill to people who come once a week, maybe twice a week sometimes. It’s definitely challenging, but worth it. There are ways in which to begin teaching writing and reading. Have you ever heard the saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words?” Well, its never been truer than in the pre-literacy classroom. The usage of pictures and objects are crucial in teaching literacy. It involves a lot of pointing and repetition. Like, a whole lot of repetition. To the point where you think you are being foolish. But then, one day, your student understands and it becomes abundantly clear how valuable and important your job is.
Some Things to Keep in Mind when Teaching English to Refugees
It is important to remember that the life of a refugee is ultra-unique. It is difficult to grasp the idea of what their life is like as an outsider. You have no idea what trauma they have been through, what they have witnessed, where they have been or who they have lost. You have to keep all of this in mind when you work with refugee populations. It usually won’t be easy to become instantly close with someone who has been through this. It takes time. They must build trust in you. Give them that time and freedom to be able to do so. My overall advice for this is to be compassionate always. Also, always be very conscious of what you’re saying. Certain actions, words or conversations could trigger an emotional reaction from some of your students. If this indeed happens, just be supportive and calm. After class, if you feel comfortable, you can ask if your student wants to talk about anything. If the answer is yes, great. Be a good listener for him or her. If the answer is no, then that’s okay. They will come to you when the time is right for them.
Teaching Refugees in the USA
Over the last year, I’ve taught English to refugees in Denver, Colorado. It has been my favorite teaching experience to date. I have been able to learn so much about the world through my students and I have been able to offer them a great wealth of knowledge as well.
My class consisted of students with varied levels of English language skills. Some students had been taking English classes for 3 years and for some, this was their first. Similar to teaching in the camp, I had about 5 students who were of the pre-literacy level. It was really difficult for me to try to figure out how I could accommodate all of my students. Luckily, I had about 2 volunteers per class to help me out with this. So, I separated the class into two groups. Pre-literacy students worked on ABCs and 123s, while I was able to dig deeper into reading, writing and listening exercises with the more advanced group.
Some Things I Learned while Teaching Refugees
A topic that always got my class talking was food! Food is such a common denominator for people all over the world. If ever I was stuck, or if no one was talking, I switched the topic to something that had to do with a food and there was instant chatter amongst my students! So, if you ever in a lesson that’s not working out too well, you know you can always rely on food!
My students also loved learning about American culture. They thought it was so interesting and so different from everything they were used to in their native countries. They were enthralled by the thought of eating hot dogs and hamburgers and some even made faces showing how weird they thought it was (I can’t disagree with them, either!)
As I mentioned earlier, this has been the most satisfying English teacher job I have ever had. Truly an eye-opening experience. So, if you’re stuck on your next teaching move, consider getting involved teaching English to refugees. The current refugee crisis is the largest it has ever been in the history of humankind, so the need is there! You can help put a little good into this world while doing what you love. Truly a win-win situation.
I am super passionate about this, so please feel free to comment below if you want more information on how to teach English to refugees or with any questions you have for me!