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The joys of teaching adult refugees



The Dutch have a word — gezellig — which roughly translates as 'warm and welcoming'. Cosy, if you like. Gezellig the classrooms are not. They are places of angular blandness, white-walled, sharp-edged, purely functional.

Hand with rulerInto mine creeps a tide of brilliant colour. Under the cold fluorescent light, vibrant cloth billows gracefully over the sparse chairs, and beaded turquoise slippers peek out from beneath fringed hems, putting the dingy beige carpet to shame.

I'm often surprised at the speed with which timidity and fear evaporate, as stories start to spill out, by word or pen. In broken English, tales of children — missing, injured, dead — of husbands vanished into God-knows-where, bombs, betrayal, flight, perilous treks through strange and hostile lands. The camps. The long, long wait.

On paper, the skilled and better-heeled select their words with care, tinker with verb tenses, parts of speech and form. But the agony leaks onto the page all the same, alive and writhing.

There are few places on this planet where these poignant confessions could emerge with such absence of restraint. Yes, these men and women have swapped tales with fellow-travellers, with soldiers at border checks, with aid workers in the camps, with embassy staff. But these are often sites of peril and uncertainty where the teller guards her tongue and the tale itself is closely doctored.

Who here can be trusted? Will my date of birth, my faith, my family name, disbar me from escape? What blameless fragment of my past might lead to my arrest? The classroom may be cool and unencumbered by distractions, but it is also safe, detached, thousands of kilometres from their devastated homelands.

There is safety, too, in the presence of the teacher. To their knowledge, she knows nothing of war, of famine, of dispossession. And she is mostly content to listen.


"When hostility and suspicion are not the default starting positions, the surface differences between us seem to arouse genuine curiosity and are often sources of great amusement and delight."


These journeyers have now arrived. They are no longer jostling with one another, weighing horror against horror, counting loss against loss, comparing the depths of their despairs. Someone is catching their terror, has witnessed their fragility and pain, believes every word spoken or written, and is holding it all closely and quietly.

In the last couple of years, I've begun to reduce my teaching load and look to new horizons. I take an English class once or twice a week and come home exhilarated and very often choked with tears. I love these journeyers, these 'new arrivals', as they're called. And love is not an overstatement.

Over the years, I've watched many of them build intimate friendships with each other that still endure. Grandmothers who have lost entire extended families bond with motherless young refugees who share with them the joy of new babies. Melancholy young men befriend the class clown from Myanmar or a Venezuelan hip hop artist and rediscover humour and hope in their lives. Men and women who would be bitter enemies in their homelands fall in love, become bosom buddies, find each other jobs and develop loyalties every bit as powerful as any ethnic allegiance.

Astonishing that the classes are such oases of peace when you consider the depth of grief and anguish gathered in this space. Much that provokes distress and heated debate outside these walls seems irrelevant in here. Spend five minutes in a class where the women are scarved and it is remarkable how inconsequential the drapery becomes. When hostility and suspicion are not the default starting positions, the surface differences between us seem to arouse genuine curiosity and are often sources of great amusement and delight.

I often feel I have the best job on the planet. Teaching English to adult refugees should be a dauntingly melancholy task. Yet these classes are especially warm and congenial places to be. Human beings at their most vulnerable possess an extraordinary fund of light and laughter despite — or perhaps because of — the darkness they have left behind.



Paulette SmythePaulette Smythe teaches English to adult refugees and migrants in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Paulette Smythe, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

No argument from me: what a privilege to prove the adage "2 teach is 2 learn".

Pam | 25 May 2018  

What a heartening article. There is hope after all in the new land. But take heed of Frank Brennan's advice to the government. It is more than time to empty the camps - NOW!

Patricia A Kane | 28 May 2018  

Thank you, Paulette. It's not often that the beginning of tears wells up in me while merely reading. I share with you that experience of helping others who have been through hell - to learn our language, in the past as a teacher and nowadays as a volunteer. I keep doing it because I love the moments of joy that are sprinkled through it.

John McKeon | 28 May 2018  

You describe so well the wonder of your class. And this is where our “ successful multicultural society” is nurtured, waiting for acceptance and care from us old Aussies.

Marianne | 28 May 2018  

Hi Paulette, I am inspired by your work and would like to teach English to refugees in Brisbane. Can you suggest how I begin. Thank you. Kaye

Kaye Carr | 28 May 2018  

I help a Syrian refugee widow with English, and her son, It is so rewarding to be accepted into their broken lives, to see the hope they have in starting a small garden, finding special shops for their ingredients, to accept the trust they put in you, to find common ground so easily. Find someone to help with English, and the benefits are immeasurable.

Marjorie Edwards | 28 May 2018  

ESL teaching is a constant source of joy for all the reasons you have given. It’s also important to note that such students are not a drain on our community financially. They already contribute to the economy by paying rent. Within two to three years, they will be paying off a mortgage and the majority will be in paid employment.

Maggie Magee | 28 May 2018  

Thank you Paulette for expressing so beautifully what ALL of us TESOL teachers know and believe. How privileged we have been .

Adele Rice | 28 May 2018  

This is for Kaye Carr, who would like some suggestions as to how to begin teaching English refugees. A great place to start is with the ESL unit in your local TAFE. Volunteers are usually more than welcome by ESL teachers and I'm sure your contribution would be highly valued. There's also a Brisbane Refugee and Asylum Seeker Support Network who may be able to help. Good luck! It really is a wonderful experience.

Paulette Smythe | 28 May 2018  

What a beautifully evocative story. Thank you for these layers of experience and insight.

Julie Perrin | 28 May 2018  

Where can you find out where one can teach English to adults in UK?

Mary Forrest | 28 May 2018  

What a beautifully written and heartfelt expression of love for our fellows this is - Paulette! I have long felt the same - and out of similar contexts to your own. We are us - all of us - not us and them! If only politicians who tend to bugger everything up could be put into our shoes in our class rooms!

Jim KABLE | 29 May 2018  

I agree with you Paulette, it is so rewarding, although I was never a Teacher as such, on a voluntary basis I teach English to Migrant/Refugee Ladies, as well as another group mainly people from Asia. My life is so much richer for it,

Caryl | 29 May 2018  

An inspirational essay offering hope not just for the refugees but also for all of us when we care more about our neighbour and less about ourselves.

Beverley Cameron | 05 June 2018  

I have only now had a chance to read this excellent article. I could relate to it as I have been helping with English conversation classes in my parish since I retired 12 months ago. Not all students are refugees but all are on a journey of some sort and I learn so much from hearing their stories. Just one thing in the article puzzles me - why do you say "the better-heeled select their words with care"? Does their financial situation really influence their ability to express themselves in writing?

Elizabeth Harrington | 17 July 2018