I learned more from my refugee students than I could ever have hoped to teach them

Tracy Taylor and her students
Tracy Taylor and her students

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: As an educator of refugees, I learned far more from my students than I had ever hoped to teach them

When I began working at the Potter’s House High School in 2011, I had no idea that I would learn far more from my students than I had ever hoped to teach them.

My mission was relatively simple: teaching the skills of reading, writing, listening to and speaking English to refugees from around the world. I was confident, arrogant even. After all, I was a world traveler. I’d been to Europe twice, and had studied Spanish all four years of high school. I considered myself to be culturally sensitive; I knew that Mardis Gras was more than just another brand of paper towel, had learned nearly all the words to It’s a Small World After All, and had won first place in the hobby contest in 6th grade for my unique collection of chachkies from around the world, thanks to my Explorers Club membership in National Geographic.

But then I met these students, and countless others like them. My life was forever changed.

Students from all over the world, 38 countries in all. Their stories were inspiring, heartbreaking. I heard tales of the degradation of war-torn families, of starvation, and of unconscionable horror.  But these kids had survived it all. While their circumstances varied, they shared a very common thread; gratitude for being in the United States and, specifically, for being given a chance at a new and peaceful life.

Looking back, I can see how full of judgment and arrogance I was. I was outraged at the ease with which they lied to me. The greed and selfishness they showed whenever food was around made me crazy. What kind of values had they been raised with, after all?

Soon enough, I realized that lying was a means of survival which they had absolutely perfected, and with good reason.

When the police were at the door asking where your father was, the ability to lie without flinching was essential. When a student stole food, it was not for themselves, but for the many relatives at home who didn’t know where their next meal would come from. How the innocence of a field trip to a Civil War reenactment would conjure memories of a childhood filled with the sounds of bombs and gunfire and send them screaming. And yet, despite it all, they had a profound and limitless ability to love.

I was such a fool.

My refugee students have a thirst for learning which puts their American counterparts to shame. They’re inquisitive. They’re enthusiastic. They’re hysterical.

“Ms. Taylor,” one of my students asked me one day, “What is a meeshoo?”

Meeshoo, I thought. What? Is she asking about Chinese food? A mountain in Peru?

“Meeshoo?” I asked. “Is it something to eat?”

“No,” she groaned, “The other students say it all the time. I don’t understand.”

I racked my brain. Meeshoo? What in the world could that be?

I said, “Well, I don’t know. Can you use it in a sentence?”

The exasperated girl rolled her eyes and stuck her hand out toward me, “You know, nice to meeshoo …”

That experience, like many other things, taught me not to make assumptions about people I didn’t know. Taught me that I couldn’t assume I knew better just because of what I thought was cultural superiority. More than anything else, teaching refugees taught me about hope in the indomitable human spirit.

And it has been my absolute joy.

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.

About Tracy Taylor
Tracy Taylor is a former high school teacher. In her free time, Tracy loves to travel and explore the world.