IRC Volunteering (Re-post)

One of our students and his family.

Last week I finished a short stint of volunteer English teaching with the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.  First it must be said that the full-time teachers there are some of the most dedicated and effective professionals I have ever met.  To me, it seems easy to congratulation one’s self in these types of working situations.   A small-minded reactionary on a whim of altruism, however well-meaning,  could easily adopt a condescending attitude toward these students.  Not these teachers. They are practical educators (and friends) and they are experts at empowering others; they represent the antithesis of egoism.

The students in these classes are refugees and asylees, from countries like Burma, Somalia and Eritrea.  A refugee, by definition, is one who is allowed into another, presumably more hospitable, country because things are so unbearable in their native countries that they are forced to flee.  Here in the United States, they are offered basic assistance and services, some of which are obligatory, such as English language instruction.  Some students are young, some could be my great-grandparents.  Each one of these people has a story, some have missing limbs, or an austere countenance of one who is wandering, fundamentally out-of-place, but all of them have something in common: they have been able to flee from their native countries for various reasons all deriving from death, starvation, homelessness and conflict. And here in their host country, they all express a pure and simple gratitude.

Just the very notion of fleeing one´s country out of desperation is so extraordinary to most people in developed societies that it is almost impossible to conceive. Instead, privileged people who don´t know they are privileged (we can call ourselves so when put in contrast to the large population of the world that struggles daily for human needs) will more often choose to co-opt a random, easily focalized cause. These causes are often filtered and sanitized in a detached, generic language, so they are quickly forgotten.

For two days a week, I brought my language, and my desire to teach it, to a classroom, packed into a module at an east county elementary school, and every day I learned much more than I taught.  Yes, that is cliché.  But let’s itemize.

I learned that I, in fact, could lead a group of 40 students without melting down. I learned more about how to manage class time,  and how to write on the board.  I learned how to better evaluate students of different language levels and how to better use communicative tools in the classroom.  I learned about pacing, not boring the students to death,  and how to use my sense of humor to stimulate learning.  I think my favorite part of volunteering was seeing students laugh and have a good time while overcoming the ridiculous obstacle of English language acquisition.  You’d be surprised to discover what you have in common with an elderly Burmese man who cannot speak your language, and a joke bridges the two of you, just for a moment.  I never would have thought that I could make a 60-year-old woman laugh while teaching her how to write the number 4.  Many times I would see in their eyes a deep tiredness, for reasons I cannot begin to speculate, but undoubtedly influenced by their long journey here and by the incredible, full-time job of raising a family in a foreign country.

A “Thank You” card for the volunteers, signed by the students.

It should be made clear that I was only an assistant.  I have limited time in my work week and could only show myself two days a week.  Sometimes I just wanted to sleep until noon and watch TV.   But my time volunteering reminded me of the things in my hectic life that I really enjoy.  The real teachers who devote themselves, day after day, to language education deserve recognition for what they do.  I look forward to the day when I can devote all of my time and effort to teaching English.

But most of these emigres are lucky even to have seen a teacher.  Most such desperate people cannot leave their respective hell-holes in which they were born, places that lack education and may not have always been hellish, and places that they would love to be proud of and live in, but cannot.  Shamefully pathetic and corrupt governments, abusive totalitarian regimes, rampant religious fanatics with guns, institutionalized abuse of women, there are many reasons for a man or woman to become a refugee.

And it is important to pay attention to language in this case. The term migrant unfortunately has become a linguistic tool of sanitized and white-washed journalism-speak, a politically correct term that sits comfortably in its vagueness, coming off almost as a slur. It is seemingly slight, but in practice it has an emasculatory power.  It is a great word for other reasons, and there may be an overlap in meaning, but it does not properly describe a father who has paid a half a year´s salary to a human trafficker, to pile his family onto a raft headed to an unknown shore, or more likely, to drowning in water in which they cannot swim, in the vague hope of a better life.  The word merely begins to describe the action, and cannot necessarily express the reasons for the action. Migrants is a better word to express groups, and often too vague to refer to individuals.

This, in my opinion, is an important distinction to understand when referring to desperate people who are relying on the moral actions of others to survive, much less to have a prosperous and fulfilling life.

For clarification from the American Heritage Usage Panel and, if you choose, reflection:

mi·grant (mīgrənt)


1. An organism, especially an animal, that moves from one region to another (as for breeding) or that has established itself in an area where it previously did not exist.
2. An itinerant worker who travels from one area to another in search of work.
3. A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another; an immigrant.


ref·u·gee (rĕfyoo-jē)


One who flees, especially to another country, seeking refuge from war, political oppression, religious persecution, or a natural disaster.

[French réfugié, from past participle of réfugier, to take refuge, from Old French, from refuge, refuge; see REFUGE.]

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