The Silent Refugee
Melissa Mesku reflects on one school day when language barriers in a classroom of refugee students threw everything off balance.
I came in one morning to find I had a new student. The other kids were talking and laughing, but she was just sitting there in the front row, looking at nothing.
I tried to introduce myself but she didn’t want to look me in the eye. I smiled and asked for her name. No answer.
Ninth graders – they’re still children. I went to my desk to call the office. The woman on the phone said she hoped it was OK to just send me the new girl even though she didn’t have a schedule yet, and would I mind making sure she goes from class to class today?
It wasn’t often that I’d get someone new. My class was for English language learners. They came to our impoverished urban public high school after spending a year at a newcomers’ immersion school nearby in Dallas. Most were the children of undocumented Mexican immigrants – “illegal aliens.” The rest were aliens of another kind: refugees.
I assumed the new girl was one of the latter. When I was done preparing for class I came over to try talking to her again, relying on a big smile and a lot of gestures. I got down low with one knee on the ground. Her face was blotchy – maybe dirty – and she smelled a bit odd, a bit sour. Her kinky hair had small bits of bed lint in it.
I took a piece of paper and pointed to the top corner.
“Can you write your name here for me?” I asked.
I handed her a pencil and asked again with my sweetest teacher voice. She limply held the center of the pencil in her fist and made no indication that she knew what I was saying.
Why didn’t I think to ask for her name when I called the office? I can’t even introduce her to the class without her goddamn name, I thought bitterly.
Why won’t she say anything?
Finally a bigger thought shut me up – What if something’s really wrong – what if she can’t talk at all?
I’d heard of some crazy shit since I started teaching. Traumas, sob stories, wild and terrible things kids had gone through, things that broke our hearts. Some of the worst stories were from our Lost Boys – the umbrella term for the 20,000 Sudanese boys who traveled thousands of miles escaping soldiers, lions and starvation until they chanced upon U.N. camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Lost Boys are said to be the most severely war-traumatized children in history, and I had a number of them in my class. Though I’d never met one, there were “lost girls,” too. Might she be one?