Wednesday, August 19, 2009

my new job: teaching refugees

Scene: a tiny room full to the brim with about 30 7ish-year-olds, in relative chaos. Teacher (‘T’, i.e. me): “English! Write your name in English!” S: “My father’s name, or my name?” T: “Your name, not your father’s name: your first name.” S: “What’s a first name?” T: “Your short name.” S: “But my short name is my number two name, my first name is my father’s name.” T: “Whatever name you want me to call you… Lor! Why do you have a knife?” Lor: “To sharpen my pencil.” T (pondering): “Ok.” S: “Teacher, I have no paper.” T: “Ok, write on the back of last week’s worksheet.” S: “Teacher, I’m hot. Can I go get water?” T: “If you’re hot, take off your sweater.” S: But it is my only shirt.” T: “Ok, then sit in front of the fan.” T: “Where is Jon? Why is his seat empty?” S: “Oh, he left.” T runs outside, calls for Jon, doesn’t find him, returns to the classroom before other students can disappear. (Jon appears inexplicably 30 min. later, soaking wet and grinning.) All that just today, just to get the students to write their name on their paper…

Last month I started my new job teaching at the Bangkok Refugee Center (BRC). The BRC is part of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) of Angelina Jolie fame. While most of the UNHCR’s work focuses on residential refugee camps in rural areas like those you see in the news, they have a few sites like the BRC that a) aren’t residential, i.e. the refugees don’t live at the Center but in housing throughout the community, and b) serve urban refugees, i.e. not ones relegated to a barren wasteland somewhere.

In addition to the school at which I teach, the Center has a medical clinic; a resource center for staples like food, clothing, etc.; social workers and psychological help; and vocational training (computer and business-environment skills, cooking and restaurant management, hair salon skills). The Center is located on a side-street in a fairly busy residential neighbourhood on the edge of the city’s densest area, and is comprised of a scattered hodge-podge of cement and corrugated tin buildings with tiny alleys and cement courtyards. Shockingly, all the main rooms are usually air conditioned, though many have serious mold problems. In general, resources are very very scarce, with occasional notable exceptions that occur through specific donations (i.e. pens and paper are short, but there’s a new Yamaha keyboard).

The refugees are of all ages and walks of life, from something like 40 different countries. Predominately represented are Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, China, Pakistan, Iraq, Somolia, and the D.R. Congo. Yup, that’s right: the ones from countries that the US and Australia don’t like get dumped here in Thailand, who’ll take anyone short-term. Thailand’s not a place where the Thai government or the UN will let refugees stay forever, though: they’re supposed to be placed permanently in a country that actually has the resources to take care of them, mainly the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the western European countries. The refugees’ ‘temporary’ stay in Thailand usually lasts 10 years, thanks to shocking red tape.

The refugees aren’t allowed to hold jobs, and most don’t speak Thai, so their options are limited. So they keep themselves busy, usually at the BRC. Any day will find the Center teaming with life: not only do you find the refugees and asylum seekers who are there to utilize the resources, but usually also their entire families. They come to meet up with friends, let their kids run around in a safe place, speak in their native languages, eat the cheap and delicious food cooked by the restaurant students, pick up some extra language skills and knowledge from the other visitors, and generally feel welcomed and at home. I love that it’s such a wonderful place that people just want to be there for no reason. And they don’t want to leave: it’s hard to enforce the evening closing time, as they want to stay reading in the library, chatting in the courtyard, playing on the playground.

I teach English and Music to a total of about 125 students. Most of my students are adults, with the memorable exception of two classes of 6-14 year-olds. In addition to my English and Music classes, the kids get a second English class, as well as Math, Thai, French, and Art (sometimes). The adults just take English, Computers, and some vocational classes.

There is such a range of ages in the kids’ classes because they are graded not by age but by ability. As many of the refugees have never been formally schooled before, they have to start at the very beginning. So, until I had them join my adult classes, there were 19-year-olds sitting in class with the 6-year-olds, all learning something like a first grade curricula. The differences between the 6-year-olds and the 14-year-olds are obviously drastic, though not as bad as you’d think. They’re amazingly energetic (considering most of them are malnourished), and extremely boisterous (not letting their lack of shared common languages stop them). A disproportionate number of them are very bright. They are also all, to a one, very mischievous.

The adults are another handful all together. Though less chaotic, their desperate eagerness to learn English and make good use of their time with me makes them VERY demanding. They are also understandably very keen to show their intelligence, to be understood as people worthy of respect rather than “Refugees”, making class discussions rather catty at times: imagine an entire class of teachers’ pets. An additional challenge is that though some of them have considerable schooling (i.e. Masters degrees), others have no schooling, and all have been out of school for a long time: they don’t really remember how to be students, and certainly have no precedence for how to be an adult student with a teacher in most cases younger than they are. It is hard to politely correct them, point out their mistakes, remind them that learning starts when you acknowledge what you don’t yet know, and encourage non-competitive and non-judgemental class discussion practices with these dynamics.

The kids and the adults alike are, of course, very stressed: most have undergone horrific events before reaching the relative safety of Thailand, almost all have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), all are seriously financially strapped and malnourished, most live in very inadequate housing, all travel long distances on the most awful forms of transportation to get to the Center every day. This, of course, adds to the level of insanity in the classroom.

There is no curricula, so I make up each class entirely out of thin air. It takes a shockingly long time to plan a lesson to accommodate the significant range of ages and abilities, hold the attention of the wigged-out students, be do-able with absolutely no resources, as well as be understandable with minimum lecturing. Of course, I also try to make the content culturally and biographically appropriate, which is hard when juggling 40-odd cultures at once. And then I invariably have to change the lesson in some way at least five times an hour due to split-second feedback and observation of its reception.

Despite the above challenges, the classes have been going very well. I’m just finishing up my fourth week of teaching, and I’m seeing remarkable improvement in the students, especially the adults’ writing and the kids’ singing. The adults are starting to relax a bit, and I have high hopes for the rest of the semester.

I’ve been especially enjoying writing the music curricula, as well as teaching reading music and basic music theory to the music teacher, Kwang, and to the computer teacher, James, who has considerable musical talent and is happy to learn how to teach another subject. Some of my favourite hours at the BRC have been spent belting out Carpenters or Peter Paul and Mary hits with Kwang at the keyboard and me on guitar, teaching chord progressions and pop song formats, or both of us on hand drums for note-reading rhythm lessons. Capacity-building has never been so much fun. :)

1 comment:

Cecily said...

I 100% can sympathize with the chaos and stress of teaching a wide range of abilities, languages skills, and attention spans. It's no easy chore and only a teacher (most of the time) has any sense of the time and toll it has on you. :)

You are doing amazing things, with amazing people. It warms my heart to see the change one person is capable of.