Let me tell you a story about Sai Meh.
She’s a 30-year-old Karenni woman who left the refugee camp in Thailand to move to the United States one year ago with her three children and her 38-year-old husband who has throat cancer. They came to Jubilee in August 2009 and Sai Meh was in the English class I taught for my entire time at Jubilee. Not that I had favorites as a teacher . . . but she was my favorite. She worked hard everyday, even though everyday, without fail, she asked me how to spell the word “weather.” She laughed at herself (to the point of tears one time!) when she made mistakes and she remembered the most random words, like “lucky,” which she’d throw into a sentence just to surprise me sometimes. When I said goodbye to her (almost) six weeks ago, she burst into tears as I hugged her goodbye.
“Teacher, I very sad you leave,” she repeated. Tears streamed down my face and my chest hurt even more when I told her that I didn’t think I could come back to Georgia to visit within the next year, knowing that I was committed to my JVC year in Alaska.
As with all the refugees, pronunciation is a serious issue when they learn English. Sai Meh’s English had improved SO much since she arrived at Jubilee (I’m told) and there was a noticeable difference from my arrival in January to my departure in May. Despite being able to hold a decent conversation, the other teachers and I decided it would be a good idea to really work on pronunciation. So, I went to class a couple months ago prepared with a sheet which had two columns of words that rhymed, but had different beginning combo letter sounds (example: chair vs. share, chip vs. ship), for her to read aloud. The other students in class happened to be absent for medical appointments that day, so I knew we would make some serious progress as we repeated and practiced the ch, sh sounds.
As we went through the words, I tried to also make sure she was familiar with each of the definitions. When we arrived at the word “ship” she looked up and said, “Teacher, I don’t know.”
“Yeah you do, it’s like a boat. You know, ” I walked to the board, drew my finest two-dimensional sailboat and pointed, “a boat.”
“Oh yes, boat,” she replied making that “ah-ha!” head motion convincing me that she clearly knew what she was talking about. “Yes, boat, very scary.”
Feeling a little concerned that perhaps she wasn’t actually grasping what I was talking about after all, I pried further, “What? Why is a boat scary?”
And there began the explanation of her escape from Burma at age 16 when she left her family, climbed into an over-crowded boat attempting to successfully cross the river to Thailand where she hoped her life would no longer be threatened by the Burmese government. Other people, desperate to leave Burma, kept climbing on board, but they couldn’t take any more people. Not exactly in these words, but through hand motions and what descriptive words she knew, she explained how they threw materials overboard as water began coming into the boat, in an attempt to keep the boat from completely sinking. As the water rose many people lost many things along the crossing.
When she arrived in Thailand, she hiked for one month up a mountain to reach the refugee camp on the other side. She ate “cookies” along the way and asked people for food and help. Don’t ask me how, but she made it to the refugee camp, and at some point shortly after, reconnected with her family.
She finished her story and the small classroom was silent. Uhh… let’s just say, it was a little hard to return to the lesson plan at this point. Frankly, I didn’t really give a shit if she could say ship. I knew she knew what a boat was, and I knew she knew that a boat was scary because she had to risk her life getting in one in order to save her life.
During all those classes of her laughter and dedicated hard work, I had honestly forgotten that she had run for her life. I had forgotten she was hated by the Burmese government simply because of where she was born and the family she was born into. She had come to the United States hoping life was better than what she had experienced before. I learned that she persevered. I learned she is a refugee.