Mention of the term “refugee” is likely to incur a wide array of reactions in our present social economy where the word has been highly politicized. Exploring this word in terms of politics often overshadows the reality that refugees are in fact people representing a broad spectrum of class, race, religion, and gender. They find themselves in the harrowing position of choosing between their homes and their lives. Being a refugee is not an elected identity, but one of dreadful circumstance.
The Refugee Youth Project is working with the community to create a sustainable solution to the affected people displaced by war and other hardships so they can thrive in new spaces. My job within this program was to act as a tutor and mentor for middle and high school students, mainly from Burma/Myanmar. Previous to entering into this program, I had little understanding of the circumstances of military dictatorship which have shaped the great divides within this country over the past sixty years.
Many of the students at my site have been in the states for several months and had a good grasp on communicating in English. They, like many teenagers, enjoyed playing games, sports, and gossiping. It was easy to see that the students shared a close knit community outside of school and RYP provided a positive space for them to spend focusing on academic work and socializing with friends. Several students I met had goals of receiving college and professional degrees in order to better work for their home country’s recovery and success. Though they recognize themselves to be refugees, they would likely not use that title to describe their identity.
My experience here forced me to view and question my own cultural norms from the perspectives of those who are experiencing it for the first time and I spent a lot of time trying to explain inconsistent intricacies of the English language. Additionally, it emphasized the importance of never removing the humanity of someone, especially those whose experience is being constantly monitored and refereed by the public. These students’ level of resilience was really inspiring, I found myself becoming attached in this very short time period. I know in many years I’ll still remember my time with this program and how Kim repeatedly defeated me in checkers despite me relentlessly boasting how good I was in the game.