Refugee students have taught me that life is something to be grabbed, enjoyed, shared, and be grateful for

Learning cheerfulness and gratitude from refugees
Jon Schoenbock at clasroom desk circa 1989

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: The most important lesson my refugee students have taught me is that no matter the difficulties one faces, life is something to be grabbed, enjoyed, shared, and be grateful for

I have been an ESL teacher since 1979, and in most of those years, most of my students have been refugees. They have ranged in age from first grade to seventy years old, although the majority were teenagers, since for twenty-seven of my teaching years, I was at Washington High School in Milwaukee. My students have come from every continent, but most of them have been from Southeast Asia and from Africa.  And despite the variety in age, language, religion, or country of origin, they have shared some common traits: cheerfulness and gratitude.

Cheerfulness and gratitude

The most impressive common trait is an unflagging sense of cheerfulness and gratitude. I can’t remember a grouchy or whiny refugee. This is a constantly humbling experience, since I have never known hunger or persecution or fear for my life, yet I complain all the time. And the things I complain about seem insignificant to the problems that these refugees face. In most of the schools I’ve taught at, which include many lower income Milwaukee schools, refugees were surely among the poorest of the students. Many of the families I encountered came to the United States with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They had left behind their homes, their families and friends, their language, their livelihood, and anything that was familiar to them. They had lost family members to war. Yet they were grateful for every day and opportunity. They were able to be aware of what they had rather than on what they didn’t have and have taught me to try to do the same.

In the last few years, I have also taught adult refugees. Unlike my younger school-age students, some of these adults have been disabled, either blind or having lost a limb usually due to war-related injuries. Again, despite the added difficulties that disability brings to life (I myself am mildly disabled), these students have never complained. They are grateful and cheerful and express this daily. I once brought a sprig of fresh holly to a class of adult refugees from Burma. One of those students was blind from stepping on an IED. I gave him the holly and he smiled and said, “It smells so green!” This simple statement in the bleak days of winter showed me that I have much more than I realized.

Sacrifices and joie de vivre

In my first year or two of teaching adults, I met some of the parents of the very students whom I had taught at Washington High. The high schoolers came to school with newer clothes while the parents came to school wearing used clothes. The parents were obviously sacrificing everything for their children. In fact, the very act of leaving their home in order to improve the lives of their children may have been a great sacrifice. So another common trait among the refugees I’ve encountered is one of shared sacrifice.

A final trait refugees have is the ability to laugh at themselves. Every year when I ask what they usually eat at home, one of them will inevitably say, “I eat a kitchen” (meaning chicken). As soon as they realize their mistake, they join in laughing with the rest of the class. So they seem to have a general joie de vivre despite the current or past trauma and tragedy of their lives. Thus, perhaps the most important lesson my refugee students have taught me is that no matter the difficulties one faces, life is something to be grabbed, enjoyed, shared, and be grateful for. It is a gift too precious to be squandered.

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017, the Refugee Center Online is collecting stories of how refugees make our lives better.

The Refugee Center Online believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement is not just the moral or ethical thing to do – it benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.

Refugees shaking hands

World Refugee Day June 20, 2017

Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.

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About Jon Schoenbeck

Jon Schoenbeck has taught ESL in Milwaukee for 38 years. When he’s not teaching, he enjoys spending time with his family, listening to classical music and opera (a distinction he’s never really understood), gardening, and reading.