Mentoring a refugee prepared me for the challenges of my own life
In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Teaching a refugee student prepared me for the challenges of my own life
Not long after I started teaching at an after-school art center in Colorado, I met Hafsa. She was 13 and in a middle-school art class, and always had a book with her. She was quiet during class, so I asked her what she was reading. She hid her face behind her book, her shyness taking over as she replied to me. I don’t remember which book, but I’m sure it was a romance. She loved love stories. I would later try to talk her into reading Harry Potter, but it was not enough of a love story for her. She told me she wasn’t interested in dating, but, “How can I learn if I don’t read about it?” she asked.
Hafsa is a refugee whose family is from Somalia, but she told me she was from Uganda, where her refugee camp was. She came to the US on September 15, 2011, with her grandmother Basra and younger sister Halima.
While teaching at an after-school art center, I watched with joy as Hafsa grew more and more confident and moved into a leadership role in our program.
She was an especially great leader for other girls, including her close-knit group of friends, all teen girls with roots in Somalia. They would play music on YouTube, sometimes Somali and sometimes One Direction, while taking pictures with Snapchat filters. They were typical teens except for their complicated pasts.
At an event with hundreds of people, I saw Hafsa fearlessly talking with adults, asking direct questions and carrying her half of the conversation. I remarked to her about how her confidence had grown. “I feel like this is the girl I’ve always been, I don’t even know who that other girl is anymore,” she told me.
During Hafsa’s sophomore year, the students designed outfits entirely out of paper to be modeled at a runway show. She volunteered to be a model, and in front of 500 people, Hafsa walked the catwalk with as much swagger and style as any of the professional models. I was amazed at how a teenage girl could go from hiding behind a book to posing for big crowds, from being forced from her home country to being a leader in a new culture.
In seeing Hafsa’s growth and resilience, I feel more prepared for the challenges in my own life.
I am motivated to be a more direct and vocal advocate for myself and others. I am more thankful for my family that is nearby and my ability to create family out of close friends wherever I am. I try to read more books about love, because there is always something to learn there.
Hafsa is now 17 and getting ready to start her senior year. I no longer work at the art center, but I keep up with her on Facebook. If her tenacity has taken her this far, I can’t wait to see what she does next.
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.
World Refugee Day June 20, 2017
Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.