They murmur, “Thank you,” as they leave the classroom. But instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” I tell them, “Thank you,” back.
I mean it. They have given me far more than I have given them.
Mondays I serve as an aide at the local World Relief ESL program, supporting Krista, who teaches the Job Class. The refugees in her class are recently arrived (some as “recently” as a week ago) and have only six weeks of preparation before joining the American workforce. Job Class, therefore, doesn’t mess with non-essentials.
Today we are learning the “doctor appointment” conversation:
A: This is Dr. ________’s office. How can I help you?
B. I need to make an appointment. My ________ hurts.
A. I’m sorry. How about _________ at ____:_____?
B. _______ at ____:_____? Yes. Thank you.
A. See you soon.
B. See you.
I teach the dialogue to the majority of the class while Krista works on travel directions with three students who’ve already learned the conversation. Then she and I switch groups. As Krista leads the large group in a fun practice session, I show the small group how to use Google Maps. I zoom in on the map of the world until northern Illinois covers the entire screen. “Where would you like to go?” I ask them. “The grocery? I can show you how to get directions from your apartment to the closest store.”
One of the women—she’s a “take-charge” gal!—has a different idea. She pulls a flyer out of her folder. “Free Computer and Literacy Classes,” it boldly proclaims. She reads the address to me. I type in her apartment address as the starting point and the other as the end point. “Do you have a car?” I ask her. She shakes her head. The two others, who live in the same apartment building as she, shake theirs, too.
I switch the default icon from “car” to “pedestrian,” and the time jumps from six minutes to forty. They laugh.
Soon it is time to work on applications. We fill out applications galore in this class—since, after all, getting hired is the ultimate point. The app they start with has two blanks: one for “name,” one for “country.” It simply determines if they can actually recognize those words. The final one, number 12, is a standard three-page application, with blanks for items like their social security number, their full address (including zip code), and work history.
Job counselors at World Relief help each refugee create a résumé. We use these to fill in addresses and former jobs on the application templates. I help a gentleman write “Family farmer” in the blank for his earliest job and then, in the space for his latest, we write “Kitchen worker,” the job he was able to get when he had to flee home and find temporary shelter in a neighboring country. It is the same for nearly all the refugees from his home. They began as farmers and now live far, far from their land.
I explain to another man that he does not have a maiden name, but his wife does—or perhaps not—names are cultural things, after all.
Back and forth they come and go from the table where I have organized all the applications. “Excuse me, I need help.” “Excuse me, I am finished.” I check their work. I remind some that Americans write on top of the blank line rather than across the middle of it. I refer to their intake sheets to check birthdates—months and days can be tricky. One man and I have the same birth year. We smile at each other with the commonality of age. Another man has circled “yes” next to “children?” and “no” next to “married?” Beneath the “no,” he has penciled in “widow.” I do not change it to “widower.” Should I have? Surely no one will point that out to him.
I find myself noticing their shoes—actually, their socks. It’s been a cold winter, and Monday after Monday I’ve shivered when I noticed women in plastic slides—no socks—and men in dress shoes—no socks. It’s not that World Relief doesn’t provide them with socks. They have them, but many come from homelands where they never before had to wear anything but sandals on their feet.
It must feel strange.
This day, though, I see lots of socks, and, oddly, it makes me glad.
Near the end of class, Krista assigns the homework. A few still linger at my table, wanting me to check their corrections, wanting—ultimately—to learn, to understand, to “make it” in this new, strange country.
Please, God, smooth their paths, I pray. They’ve already traveled such hard, treacherous roads. Bring kind people to them when they need aid. Protect them from prejudice and hate. Let them meet You in gentle eyes, in helping hands, in mouths that share Your Name gracefully, truthfully.
I slide the blank applications into the correct folders, ready for another day of practice, and leave with a strange mix of sorrow and joy and great gratitude.
“Thank you,” I say again to a few who are still waiting in the vestibule for their ride to arrive.
For they have given me much.