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Gail South

African Refugees

There are eight adults and a seven-year-old girl in class today. Abraham and his wife are from Namibia but have lived in a refugee camp in Congo for the last six years. Harris is from Liberia, as are four young women, two of whom have babies with them that cry almost constantly. I learn later that two of the women are Harris's wives. The Liberians have lived most of their lives in various refugee camps in Cote d'Ivoire. Rahmat is from Iraq. I don't know how long he has been a refugee. I'm from America, a volunteer teacher at the International Rescue Committee. My students have been in the United States ten days.

Abraham is fluent in English and Harris is nearly so. Two of the women speak a little; two say nothing although they appear to understand at least part of what is going on. Rhamat has never seen the English alphabet before, and doesn't understand anything I say, but he nods and smiles when I talk to him.

"What's the weather like today?" I ask the class.

"It is cold," Felicia says.

"It's cool," I correct her. It's mid-October and I wore a light sweater this morning, but I won't need it this afternoon. It will be in the seventies by lunchtime. "It gets cold in the winter." I say. "The temperatures are mild in the fall."

"It is cold," Abraham says. He grins, wraps his arms across his chest and shudders.

"It all depends on your perspective," I say. "It depends on what you are used to—what's normal for the place you are talking about. Does it get this cold in Africa?" "No, it is warm in Africa." Abraham says, still smiling.

"It gets cool in the evening sometimes," his wife Sarah speaks up for the first time.

I have printed the five-day forecast for different U. S. cities from I take the top sheet and pass the rest around. My page is for New York City. I hold the printed sheet in front of me pointing to the picture of a smiling sun or a cloud with pursed lips and puffed up cheeks next to each day's forecast. I go over the weather predictions smiling like the woman on TV as she tells you whether or not to take your raincoat. "And by Friday the skies will be clearing and we'll see Mr. Sun once again. Back to you Bob."

I ask the students what their page says. I call on Abraham first. He has Anchorage, Alaska. "Today, it will be mostly cloudy, highs around 35. Tonight it will be mostly cloudy, lows will be near 20." He continues down the page, never missing a word. I stop him as he starts to read the ads at the bottom. We look at Alaska on the globe and all agree that we wouldn't want to live there.

The thought of winter terrifies the Africans. They have never felt a cold wind, or icy rain. There is no word for snow in their language. They are wearing sweaters and jackets in the warm classroom. Rhamat doesn't know what we are talking about until I draw a picture of snow on the board, and then he nods yes, it does that in Iraq. His gestures and short sleeves tell me he thinks it is warm today.

We go around the room, students reading what they can, Abraham and Harris helping the women and me spending extra time with Rhamat. I know this class is more than a little challenging for some of the students. It's impossible to plan a lesson based on the students' level of English because I never know who is going to be in class. It's not unusual to have someone like Abraham who can articulate the language almost as well as I can in the same class with someone like Rhamat, who is still learning to say "hello." Students come to my class from the time they arrive in America until they get a job, usually within a couple of months. If they have time, they take English classes at night, if not, they are on their own.

After discussing the seasons and all the weather possibilities, I tell them to take a ten-minute break to stretch their legs and go outside to smoke if they want. But no one smokes; the Africans sit around the table and talk quietly in their native tongues. Rhamat practices writing the alphabet, carefully forming the English letters underneath the Persian script.

For the second half of class, we are going to plan a vacation. This is usually a popular lesson. People get the opportunity to learn about different parts of the United States as they increase their vocabulary. After living in refugee camps for the last five or ten years, planning a vacation in their new country is a fun activity for students, even if it is only pretend. The refugees believe that living in such a wealthy, free country, they will soon be able to take vacations like other Americans, driving their SUV's through the Grand Canyon just like the commercials. They expect to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. They anticipate living the kind of American life they have heard about.

I hold up a map of the United States and ask where they would like to go on vacation. "Anywhere in America, anything you want to do," I say.

"Arizona." Felicia speaks softly.

"Why do you want to go to Arizona?" I ask, expecting to hear about a special place, or maybe a person she wants to visit.

"Because it is warm."

"It is also warm in Texas," Harris says. "Texas is a big state."

"Florida," Abraham suggests. "It is warm in Florida."

It has turned into a game of name the warm states. I try to redirect them.

"Well, we can only go on one vacation this year, so we have to choose just one place. Where would you really like to go?"

No one speaks. I look expectantly at the dark faces around the table. Even the babies are quiet. Rhamat looks up from writing his alphabet and smiles.

"Okay, let's pick one. Surely there is somewhere that everyone can agree on."

"Florida," Abraham finally says. There is a resignation in his voice but I don't understand it so I just ignore it and go on.

"What will you do in Florida?" I keep smiling, trying to keep the tempo up, but this is a hard crowd.

"Go to the beach."

"The beach. That sounds like fun. What do we need to pack to go to the beach? What kinds of things will we need on our vacation at the ocean?"


"Well, where will you stay? That might make a difference in what you need to take with you."

"A cloth for sleeping," Abraham suggests. "What is it called?"


"No, it is not sleeping clothes."

I don't understand what he is trying to say.

"Will you stay in a hotel," I ask.

"No, those are for rich people. We will camp." Abraham continues to speak for the group.

"What do you need for camping," I ask.

"A tent," Harris speaks up.

"Good, what else do you need for camping?"

"A sleep sack," Abraham finally comes up with the word.

"Sleeping bag," I correct him. "When we camp, we sleep in sleeping bags."

All along, I'm writing the words on the board: CAMP, TENT, SLEEPING BAG, PICNIC. I ask what clothes they will need to take. SWIMSUIT. And what else would you wear? I hold my leg up and draw my hand across the long pants on my thigh.


"A sweater."

"No sweater," I say, "it's warm in Florida, even at night."

"What do you need in the sun?" I point to my glasses.


"SUNGLASSES," I correct them, as I write the word on the board.

"What will you do at the beach in Florida?"


"That's a good idea. What do you need in order to go fishing?"

"A line. I need a fishing line." Harris says, starting to sound almost interested.

"A FISHING POLE," I correct him. He looks confused. I draw a crude fishing pole on the board with a line coming out of it. "This is the POLE, this is the LINE."

Abraham makes a motion of winding the reel. "What is this called?"

I add a reel to my fishing pole. "This is a REEL," I say as I write the word on the board.

"What else might you want to do in Florida?"

The room is quite but for the occasional crying baby. I smile as I look around. My eyes meet those of seven-year-old Chandra. She reminds me of a fawn, gentle brown eyes and long curly lashes surrounded by soft mahogany skin. She has taken a break from caring for the screaming two year olds to join the class. She has the stricken look of someone is resigned to terror and pain. She looks down at the table.

"What about Disneyland," I ask with enthusiasm. "Have you heard of Disneyland?"

Eighteen brown eyes look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language for the first time.


I wait, smiling like the weather lady.

"We do not know Disneyland," Abraham speaks for the group. "What is Disneyland?"

"You don't know Disneyland?" I ask, stunned by their ignorance. "It's a park." I stumble over words. How do I describe Disneyland? How do I say it is a giant fantasyland that people drive to in camping trailers bigger than the houses in the refugee camps? Where they park on acres of asphalt and take an underground train with thousands of other people to a make-believe world where the entrance fee is more than the Africans' weekly food budget. Where they get off the train to see people dressed as characters out of movies that have earned the producers and actors millions of dollars. A place where people spend hundreds of dollars to buy colorful toys their children will play with for a few weeks before discarding. Where they will buy shirts and hats to put in closets and drawers already filled with shirts and hats they never wear. Where they will eat candy and hot dogs and drink gallons of caramel colored sugar water and buy balloons their babies can hold by a string and then, opening their tiny hands, send into the sky and cry for more.

"Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck?"

"We know Mickey Mouse," Abraham says, briefly taking his eyes off the globe that I used in talking about the weather. He looks at me as if to say, "And your point is?"

He goes back to examining the globe, the class is silent.

"It's better that you don't know Disneyland," I say, feeling guilty for even bringing the subject up. I move back to the vacation in Florida. "What else might we need while we are in Florida?"

More silence.

"We do not go on vacation in Africa," Abraham says at last, looking annoyed that I keep talking about it. "People are too busy to go somewhere else to do nothing."

Suddenly everyone is interested in the conversation. The two women who haven't said anything during the class are now talking and nodding.

"We do not have time to take vacations."

"Vacations are expensive."

"Africans work."

"We don't go on vacation."

"We are too busy."

"What are you busy doing?" I ask, glad to get them talking. I don't really care what we talk about; as long as they are speaking English, they're learning. That's why I'm here. Not to teach about rich American vacations or when it's warm enough to plant peas or how much it snows in Buffalo.

"We are busy getting food. People are too busy working to feed themselves and their families to think about vacations. People from other countries come to Africa to take vacations, but Africans don't take vacations. We don't go to beaches or play with balls."

"Yes," Harris says. "In Africa people do not have money to take vacations. We don't go shopping. We hunt for food. We work."

"In America people don't eat fresh food. They feed their animals expensive food. It is crazy." Sarah says. The Africans have learned the English language and religion, but the African way of life is still with them.

"In America people have a stable government that takes care of everything. They do not have to worry about living the way we do in Africa," Abraham says. He is smiling, but his stern tone says he is serious. He is gentle in his attack on our lifestyle only because his is a gentle being. It's clear he does not approve.

"People care about chickens here. They eat frozen chicken from the market. It is bad. It is not fresh meat like we eat in Africa." Sarah sounds like she is scolding a child.

"In America people care more about their animals than they do other people. Animals are for eating." Abraham gestures pointing a gun. "In Africa we kill animals and eat them fresh."

"In America people don't even kill snakes. Snakes are very dangerous," Sarah reproaches.

"I like snakes," I say in defense of our seemingly crazy lifestyle. "They eat the mice and insects that eat my garden. I would never kill one."

Sarah looks at me as if I am insane. "Snakes kill people."

"Not here. Most of the snakes we have are not poisonous." I go on to talk about blacksnakes, rat snakes, and garter snakes. Then I tell them about copperheads, the only venomous snakes we see much of around here. But I have never heard of anyone dying from a bite, I tell them, it's just very painful. Several students shake their heads in disbelief.

I ask about snakes in Africa. They tell me what kind they have, how big they get, how they kill people. For the last few minutes of class, everyone is engaged. I hate to end the conversation, but our time is up so I thank the class and say goodbye. I didn't cover all the things I had planned, like long weekends and holidays, how we usually only take a week vacation because people have gotten too busy with jobs and homes and kids ballgames to stay away for longer periods. I didn't talk about vacations to different places as I often do. A recent class of students from Russia wanted to go to California to see Hollywood, a class of Bosnians wanted to go to New Orleans where people party all the time. A little girl from Iraq wanted to visit a friend from the refugee camp who had been resettled in California while her father wanted to visit his friend in Detroit. Someone else wanted to go to Canada and a man from Tehran wanted to go to any big city, Charlottesville is so small.

Though those people also came from war-torn countries, before the major cataclysm in their government, they had homes, education, and plenty of food. But the refugees from Africa have never had stability in their lives. Some of them have been in refugee camps for fifteen years. They have done well to stay alive.

The next week we talk about direction. If I am standing outside the IRC office and I want to get to the pharmacy, how would you tell me to get there? Where do you live? How do you get here from your house? LEFT, RIGHT, BLOCK, BUS STOP, STREET, NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST.

Toward the end of class, Abraham asks me where I live. I show him the route to my house on the local map. He wants to know why I live in the country. I tell him I like the space around me. "How much land do you have," he asks. When I tell him 145 acres, Abraham says I am a landlord. "No," I say. "It's wooded land, I don't use it for anything other than hiking." He wants to know why I don't farm the land and I tell him about my small garden. I don't say anything about my pets until he asks, then I admit that I have cats and a dog and that I buy their food at the grocery store. Yes, there are deer, squirrels, bear and an occasional coyote, but I don't kill them.

"What a waste," Abraham says. "Many people could be fed on that much land."

©2005 by Gail South

Gail South lives in Covesville, Virginia, and has been teaching English to refugees for the past four years. She recently graduated from Goddard College with an MFA in Creative Writing.

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