This week I began substitute teaching an English class for newcomer refugees for the summer. I taught the same class last summer. It is completely different to teach newcomer refugees English and in many ways it is an honor and a privilege. They come from a refugee camp and in a matter of days or hours, life as they knew changes literally overnight.
They come from a camp where life is a struggle. There can be a lack of medical care, adequate housing and life’s necessities. Also uncertainty and loss of hope surrounds them. In the camp the best they can hope for is to be safe from those who would harm them and to come to a new country as soon as they can. There is no going back to where they fled from because the dangers are great.
When they leave the camp to come to America and more specifically my hometown Lincoln, they come literally not knowing anything about their new life here. That presents an honor and privilege, but also a responsibility on the part of those who seek to help them.
For me it is a tremendous honor to help them as they experience the first weeks of their new lives in America. I take it quite seriously, so I begin my day at home praying and asking God to help me to help them and to show them God’s love by helping them with English and to understand some basics about life here in Lincoln.
This week we only had three days together in my first week with them. We did things such as walk outside the building, so I could show them O Street the main street in my city and the street the building is on. I used O street to help them understand north and south for addresses. We talked about other practical things, but there is something deeper that happens.
I am their first person to have contact with on a regular basis as they try to start their new lives. It means being in tune with my students and observing them to see how they are doing when they come into class. The stress they are under is tremendous as they try to adjust to a new city and a new culture that is pervasively surrounding them 24/7. This morning was an example of what I am talking about.
This morning I noticed one of the students, a young Yazidi woman, looked somewhat sad to me. She told me she had a headache, so I accepted that explanation knowing more might come out and it did. Later she shared that she felt sad because it was her last day in the class since next week she will go on to the next class. Attachments form quickly for them in the first month. In a way it is almost like rubbing salt in the wound by having them experience another change so suddenly. We talked about how I am her friend. We talked about me meeting her brother and grandmother who she lives with. She asked if she could have a picture with me and I said sure. She has a picture with me now. By the end of class, she was able to smile and we shook hands. I reminded her I am her friend and told her if she and her brother need help to understand life here to let me know.
Compassion is not only in big grand gestures and or great efforts. I am thankful for those, but compassion is also in the little moments. Compassion is in taking the time to understand the plight of others. Compassion is found in listening. Compassion is even in letting someone take a picture because they are afraid they will not see you again. That is a completely understandable fear for refugees who have lost loved ones to violence and who have left people behind in refugee camps.
One thing about having the compassion in our hearts that Jesus had and has, it compels us to action. If I truly have compassion for the plight of others, it will compel to put that compassion into action.