* Michelle Thoughts

Crash Course from Congo

For the last several months, I (Michelle) have had the opportunity to hang out with a refugee family from Congo who arrived in Portland one year ago. In just the short time that I’ve known them, mostly through teaching English to the mother, they’ve opened my eyes to a new way of seeing the world. Here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way…

Mom is a sweet, determined widow in her mid-50’s who has birthed who-knows-how-many children. Seven have come with her to Portland (no, make that eight! Since I drafted this post, an older daughter flew in who recently delivered a baby). They are ages 14 to 24, and a few others are scattered around the world with the families they’ve started. Never having been to school a day in her life and with no background in English, the mom now hops on the public bus by herself and attends English classes at the Community College and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, sometimes out of the house from noon until 9pm, just to soak in all the English lessons she can. When I first met her, she had already learned the alphabet but had no clue how to fill out a worksheet. She had taken down as many notes as she could from her classes but had no idea what the words on the pages meant. The thing about ESL classes here is that they assume that you have literacy in your own language and know what to do in a classroom. I’ve definitely learned a lot about non-verbal communication as I’ve spent even more time and effort in my lesson planning simply determining creative ways to communicate the method or objective of a particular activity than I have spent on the content of the lesson itself.

I’ve learned that refugee assistance in our country lasts for 8 months. English classes, housing, bus passes, employment training, etc. is all taken care of for that period, but afterward, the family is expected to find jobs and take care of themselves. I happened to meet my family as they headed into their eighth month in the U.S.  They were exceptionally motivated, were persistent in studying English, and had done everything asked of them. Still, even the older kids hadn’t completely mastered our language and they lacked job experience with American companies. Once the 8 months expired, they no longer had a means of transportation, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in the search for jobs while their financial assistance for monthly rent was simultaneously disappearing. How do you support 8 teens and adults without any full-time employment in the household? Even the Refugee Community Organization’s program, which also provides job search and transportation assistance, is limited. Because the oldest kids already completed all levels of the program and graduated, they can no longer get benefits that come along with attending classes there, so their 52 year-old mother had to go through the program, pretending to be job searching, just so the rest of the family could have at least one bus pass to share.

Eventually, three of the kids found part-time jobs and the family is able to get some minimal rent and food assistance from the state. That is to say, they’ve somehow (almost miraculously) managed to move themselves forward but they’re definitely not on solid ground yet. They hold family meetings to make decisions together, as they tell me they used to do back in the Congo. They function as a unit, taking care of each other, and though there are still many needs unmet in their household, they are some of the most gracious and sweet people you will ever meet.

I find myself thinking about this family all the time. I think about how much they have been through and how much they have overcome. I wonder a lot about my place in their lives. I know my role is not to step in and fix everything or to “be the savior” but rather to be a friend and to find ways to empower them. Technically, my only real job is to tutor the mother in English. Our progress is slow, but at least she is gaining confidence. And we’re both gaining a deep appreciation for each other. I think I really just wanted an excuse to become friends with a refugee family, and that’s exactly what’s happened. I feel so blessed to be welcomed into their home- it’s definitely a highlight of my week!

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