I’m in my car now, just sitting.  I can’t drive away.  There were 33 refugee kids from Africa in the library room with a max capacity of 19 (says the sign on the wall).  The kids are aged 9 mos- 12th grade. Some don’t speak English.  They look at me with big gorgeous chocolate brown eyes, with a mixture of tenderness, curiosity, kindness, pain…  They want to learn from me. Ironically, they are strangers here in my hometown, and I am the stranger in the room.

I want to give them hope, to teach them skills to survive here, to be successful, happy, to do well in school so they can make lives for themselves.  I don’t speak any of the many languages they speak. My heart explodes in my ears, compassion chokes me up, and (pun intended) I am at a loss for words. The book I brought is useless.  As is the planned lesson.

I hand out paper, markers, pens, colored pencils… and ask one girl to translate for me. 
“Draw something you love.  Draw what makes you happy.  Draw something you love about yourself. Draw something you want me to know about you.”  She translates into French.  Another girl translates into an African dialect.  A young man translates it again into a third language.  They look at me in wonder, confused for a moment.  Then they lunge for pens and paper, they smile, they draw, they chatter, they sing!  They color, and for a moment, we are all happy children.  

I try to explain that libraries are supposed to be quiet places (with help of three translators). They don’t understand.  A happy place full of books and they have to be quiet??  They don’t have libraries in refugee camps. Or books. They don’t know how to read.  

We need a bigger room!  Kids are sitting on laps, on the floor, under the table…  Kids in chairs behind kids at the table!  I ask the librarian. Yes there is a bigger room.  It’s available some Saturdays. $25 a week, paid in advance with the reservation.  (I wonder, who can pay for that? I can’t even pay that!  $100 a month?! But oh I want to!)  I don’t know what to do, there is no system for any of this it seems.

The man who has organized it thus far- Asukulu has spent a year trying to arrange transportation for the kids to be here today.  None of the families have cars. Asukulu and his family have immigrated from Congo; they won the lottery to come to America.  He is highly educated, was a school principal in Africa, he speaks 6+ languages.  He is a janitor here, an intelligent well-spoken compassionate man who loves children.  And in his free time arranges rides for them to libraries so they can learn the skills my program teaches, and hopefully succeed here.

Before class, he tells me refugees are promised the American Dream, land of freedom and opportunity.  He says there are 600,000 people in African refugee camps… no schooling in the camps, no education, no training, just waiting.  The lucky ones are plucked out of the camps and plopped into America, but no system to work with them.  They get 6 months of food stamps (for refugees, none for immigrants he says), and good luck.  No training, no language classes, no skills to survive. He is their advocate it seems.

He confides that the kids have never been to school before, they don’t like sitting at desks, they don’t understand the value of education (free education even!), they don’t even speak English.  The parents are working several jobs each, tired out,  most don’t have plates or silverware, no welcome kit for survival.  Parents are divorcing, children drop out of schools and get into trouble or live on the streets.  

I guess it’s better than living in war…  But should we promise them so much and them leave them to struggle?  

Asukulu was the janitor at a church; the church has been good to him and his family.  The church members care, and gather clothing and household goods for other families… but the families feel pressured to join the church… and on top of all the changes they have already faced, it’s uncomfortable.  Asukulu anonymously sneaks the items into the apartment laundry facilities for the families to find later.  I love his heart.  He is not just a janitor, he is a custodian of children’s futures.  

He tells me he’s sad that a few generations will be lost, families torn apart by this new way of life.  But maybe, just maybe, the younger ones can be reached, maybe we can make a difference for some of them, that they can have a chance to become productive successful members of society.  Oh I hope we can make a difference!

I called my friend, my boss, the director of the program.  We brainstormed together, made a list of nearby churches and schools to contact for a bigger space for these kids who want to learn on Saturdays.  It’s a start.  I guess now I can drive home.

Almost every one of them brings me their drawing to see, they are shy to show me…  The drawings are marvelous, colorful, beautiful, happy.

Home of the Brave Audiobook
My son read this book in the 5th grade; it moved him so much he had me read it too.