So. I teach ESL to southeast Asian refugees. I love my job. I do. It’s amazing and humbling and I spend a good deal of time playing bingo and teaching chants about ‘be’ verbs. It’s a pretty sweet gig.
Several of my students are KaRen, an ethnic minority from eastern Burma. In the past fifty years, the KaRen have made several attempts to lead insurgencies against the military dictatorship and failed. When these attempts failed, the military began to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the country of KaRen, forcing more than 120,000 of them into refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.Though only intended for temporary use, many refugee camps housed KaRen for 10-15 years. The camps are halfway between a shanty town and a prison, where refugees live in tents or huts, aren’t allowed to leave the camp without a permit and aren’t taught the language of their host country. Refugees bide their time until they are allocated to a new host country, something that they often have no say in.
This is the history of my students. Now that they have been in Minnesota for a few months, they know how to take the bus and where they can buy coconut milk. They’ve experienced snow and escalators are officially old news. Now that they’re experts on American life, they get quite excited at the prospect of new students who they can surely ‘break in’ and impress with their knowledge of this cold, new place. They were all a’fluster when I told them on Monday that we’d be getting new students the next day.
On Tuesday, I ushered three demure KaRen women into the classroom when one of my students jumped out of his seat and started yelling … because thousands of miles away, years ago, in the mountains of Thailand, they all lived in the same camp. And now here they were again, in my tiny classroom in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Needless to say, I had to busy myself with my dry erase markers for several minutes so I wouldn’t weep over the joy of it all.