by Heather Zettelmaier, English/Writing (ESL)
I didn’t know what to expect.
There was no outrage.
There was no panic.
There was, as usual, a lot of silence, and twenty sets of eyes on me.
In my English as a Second Language classroom during the week following January 27, 2017, I braced myself for an underlying sense of distress or frustration, particularly from my Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni, Somali, and Sudanese students. What I found instead was a group somewhat hesitant to engage in a discussion about President Trump’s executive order to ban entry from those seven designated countries. Over the weekend, they had heard the stories of deportations, relatives left stranded with wasted plane tickets, stateside lives left indefinitely abandoned, and hope for refugees lost. Although many of my students had glued themselves to the news, their attitude seemed to be one of, “How can we discuss this? And why should we? What can be done?”
My initial plan was to give my Intermediate ESL Writing class some 10-minute writing prompts as warm-ups, part of our class routine. “1. Write about something you are looking forward to,” or “2. Write about your weekend. How was it? What did you do?” or “3. Do you have a reaction to anything you saw or read about this weekend?” Much to my surprise, only three out of twenty students chose to write about the third choice – one Yemeni, one Chinese, and one Japanese student. The majority of my students were drawn to task #1, engrossed in the excitement of traveling to a friend’s wedding, planning a family birthday, or even packages coming in the mail. When I expressed to them that I had spent Friday night writing a carefully worded letter to Donald Trump, printed it, and put it in my mailbox on Saturday, they smiled. One student nodded and calmly said, “Thank you.” Then we all laughingly wondered if Trump would actually read it.
Early in the week, WCC President Rose Bellanca sent out a statement that assured our international students of a safe, nurturing environment. Still, I felt the need to look my students in the eye and reiterate that sentiment as their teacher – that I would do my very best to support them, listen to their concerns, protect their rights, and advocate for them. The truth is that these friends of mine from afar are largely not citizens, so they don’t have much of a voice, and if they did, they might not know how to go about making it heard. They are aware that they have a front row seat in an action-packed political show. What will the Americans around them do in the face of injustice? Will they yell, get loud with anger? Will the outcries fade in a few days? Will any of it make a difference?
The next afternoon, my “Intermediate ESL Listening, Speaking, and Pronunciation” class was, as always, abuzz with chatter. This group is chock full of Iraqis, Yemeni, Sudanese, and Mexicans, as well as energetic English learners from a half a dozen other countries. Not having prepared an activity to engage students regarding the executive order, I ungracefully asked, “Is everyone okay? Has anyone been affected by this? Talk to me. I’m concerned about you.” Essentially, my students reassured me, “Yes, yes, we are fine. We are not going anywhere, but we are fine.” My Sudanese student, a young wife and mother, said: “My sister got in from Sudan just fine yesterday. She’s a U.S. citizen.”
From the students of war-torn countries, I sensed a calm acceptance of what was happening, certainly not apathy, but a resilience about whatever may come. In many of their countries, they have learned to live without freedom. Under totalitarian or unstable governments, they’ve had their rights denied, experienced sudden inexplicable changes in policy, and seen preference given to one religious group over another. After watching the events of January 27 unfold, I think there is a sadness that perhaps our country may not be so different after all. Rather than anger, I saw disappointment, a feeling that the messages of American liberty had built false hope and deception. “We thought the United States would be different,” my Jordanian mother-of-teenagers quietly shared.
For so many of my students, the concept of freedom has been attractive and exciting, part of what drew them to the United States. Like so many good things in life, we as Americans cannot truly appreciate political freedom because we have never experienced the utter lack of it. This is why the very concept of freedom is so hard for us to grasp and treasure. In the wake of the January 27 executive order, all over social media and splattered about news articles were snippets from “The New Colossus,” the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty, words that ring with rightness and generosity, that evoke those lessons we learned as children raised in America. Before the week slipped away, I decided to bring that poem to another group, my Intermediate ESL Reading class. The vocabulary is rich with strong images and calls directly and simply to the world, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Once the meaning of the poem became clearer, I explained to this group, “This is why many Americans are sad about this situation. We know that this is a beautiful concept, a belief that we all stand by as citizens.” Class ended, and my Syrian refugee, a wife and mother of young boys, said to me with a confident smile, “I know the American people will do something about this.” After all that she has been through, she somehow trusts that the American people will advocate for what is right, to preserve “the golden door.”
I would like to earn that trust, to be worthy of it. This feeling that there is rightness and something to fight for should be acted upon. Our actions should be carried out wisely, with integrity. Students, and others, are watching. It’s so important to keep listening, reading, thinking critically, and doing the right thing. In this country, we have a system, however imperfect, that gives us the freedom to voice our concerns and ideas. It is our responsibility to exercise our freedom for good. So many of my ESL students have very little contact outside of the international community; school – the classroom – is a place for vital contact with Americans. When relationships are formed and friendships begin between people of different nations, trust can be built, and we can start to carry each other along in our best attempts to live out this precious gift of freedom.