Sunday, April 06, 2014

Realizations of Cultural Isolation

I have one of the best jobs around. I have the privilege of working with middle and high school students from all over the globe. Almost every single student in our Eagle Scholars college readiness program speaks at least two languages...and many of them speak three or four. The large majority of our students are either immigrants or refugees.

I am fascinated by my job and honored by the experience of getting to learn from young people from so many different countries. I often think how blessed I am to have been put in a position that allows me such rich, cultural interaction.

But, the truth is, all of my infatuation with my job and the cultures around me does not take into account what they might be feeling...which might not be such elation.

The other night, we attended a performance in the arts district. I usually take 15-20 students to these performances and they absolutely love them. This performance was in the Performing Arts Center and we were all seated in the one-person seats on the edges (a little different from our usual seats in the Winspear that places us all together).

At intermission, one of my students decided he wasn't thrilled with being by himself so he moved his chair around (I never realized the back and side chairs were movable!) to go sit by some other girls in the group. They immediately told him to move his chair back to where it belonged and came and told me. I, of course, responded as I usually do, with a harsh, "We don't ever move chairs in a place like this!"

Let me step aside and give some background for a minute...

The student in this situation is, by my own uneducated diagnosis, probably autistic. He is absolutely brilliant in math and a super sweet kid who always has a smile on his face. I'm not sure if his autism or just his personality, but he's always wandering off. He's never quite gotten lost, but I am constantly having to yell out for him and ask where he went. He always saunters back with an expression like, "Yes, Ms. Janet?" as if he were standing there all along. His somewhat quirky behaviors often get him picked on at school. I've seen people say things to him. I've scolded our own Eagle Scholars for refusing to partner with him and made it clear that their behavior toward him would NEVER happen again. I know I can monitor it somewhat in our program, but it doesn't change what happens to him every other minute of the day.

He always shows up for our events and is very involved in our program. He ended up in the program by default, because one of the other kids chosen to be in the program didn't show up. I am constantly thinking how glad I am that we ended up getting him in. 

He is Vietnamese. The only Vietnamese student in our program and, if not the only one at school, he must be one of the few. He talks very fast and with a strong accent, which makes it difficult to understand his constant questions, which are sometimes relevant and sometimes not necessarily on topic. His mom is learning English but doesn't have the ability, at this point, to communicate really well. His dad does speak English and is an advocate for his son, but he works a lot. His family is super sweet. His mom makes and sends me sweets all of the time and is always so thankful when I take him home when his dad is still working late at night.

Back to the story at hand...

After I scolded him for moving the chairs, he asked if he could sit somewhere else. There were open seats beside myself and another student so I invited him to be by us. He left an empty seat in between. When I encouraged him to move closer, he shook his head and then I saw his face squinch together as the tears start to come. 

It was a painful cry to watch because it was obvious it came from very deep inside. The tears started to fall. I immediately placed my hand on his arm and asked what was wrong. He couldn't respond. I squatted down beside him and continued with a barrage of questions, "What is it??" "What happened??" "Was it what I said??" Maybe because I was persistent and maybe because he thought he might have a shot at me being able to help, he finally said something. 

Between the tears, the way he talks fast, and his accent, I couldn't understand him. I was frustrated at myself...at my inability to hear and understand him...my inability to speak the language of each of the kids I work with every day. I asked him to repeat. I still couldn't understand. I asked one more time. Still couldn't. I started asking questions of what I thought he might have said. He shook his head, "no." He finally said,

"I'm sad."

My heart sunk. That was hard to hear. The boy who endures everything with a big smile on his face is hurting. He smiles through his pain. I knew this must be the case, but seeing it was one of the most painful things I've had to endure recently. 

"Talk to me," I explained. "What is it?" 

"I don't have friends," he told me. "I thought they were my friends, but even they aren't," referring to the girls who had made him move his chair away from them.

I sat by him and tried to listen to him and console him as much as possible. By this time, the girls had come back and were immediately concerned. "What happened?" they asked. When the time was right, I pulled them aside and explained to them, "He's a person with feelings, too. He may smile all of the time, but he gets his feelings hurt. I want you guys to be nicer to him. Include him. Not just now, but more often in everything. He needs friends, too." 

Since all of the girls were Nepali and are here through refugee status, they began to nod. One explained, "Yeah, I went through that in fifth grade. I know how that feels." Another agreed, "Yeah, me too." They're good girls. My hope is that they will show leadership. My hope is that our Eagle Scholars program can be the place where he finds acceptance of who he is. My hope is that he feels love more than rejection so it balances out the pain. 

What I began to realize is that while I love saying we have so many different cultures in our program, being here from another country can be terribly isolating and painful. Sure, being in the United States may ultimately offer them more opportunities. Sure, being in the United States provides them an opportunity at education. But think about this...

A family who comes on refugee status has to immediately find a job to sustain themselves. No one pays them to learn English first. Many of our parents work two or three jobs and have no time to learn English. The spouses who either don't work or take the time to attend classes still find it very hard (statistics show it's much more difficult for an adult to learn another language than it is for a child). The children do pretty well on picking up the language, especially when we consider that the schools bilingual programs are Spanish/English...not Nepali, Vietnamese, Somali, Burmese, Chin, Persian, or any other number of languages our Eagle Scholars speak. Despite the fact that the children are learning the language quicker, they are still children and need the adults in their lives to help them negotiate this new life. 

Consider the fact that yes, the refugees and immigrants coming here now have an opportunity at a better education than in their country (and, trust me, they are extremely grateful for that opportunity!), but what if they have some kind of learning difference such as autism?! The parents or even the teachers may not realize that it is something that can be worked with in a different way. The parents may not know how to advocate and the teachers may think that the child is just different because of his/her cultural background. Even if the parents think there might be something different about their child or even if they want to explain what they know, they can't because of the language barrier. If a teacher (or non-profit worker like myself) wants to talk to the parents to gain a better understanding of the child and figure out how they can help the parents help their child, again, the language barrier makes that truly difficult.

Being an immigrant...being a refugee...is isolating. My prayer this morning is for people who feel isolated because their situation is difficult for others to understand. My prayer is that I (and many others) will recognize this isolation and do everything possible to break down those barriers...find translators...work to learn a different language or two...advocate in the schools...make the families feel welcome and accepted and find ways to communicate. My prayer is for the middle schooler whose pain came through in his tears. My prayer is that his good days outweigh his bad and that we can be a program of light in his life. My prayer is that he finds some friends...some good friends...who will support and accept him.

And as we say at my church, "Lord, hear our prayers."
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