The Refugee Connection

For this fellowship, I was able to choose a region that I preferred for placement- but after that, it was left to the gods of chance (aka the selection committees and the host embassies) to decide who would go where. In May, I found out that I had been shortlisted for Rwanda. When I received that email, my stomach and heart lurched in union – with excitement. The fellowship attempts to pair Fellows with areas and projects that match their areas of expertise, and Rwanda is a country reinvented (in a manner of speaking) by refugees, a population that I have worked with for more than three years. I’m involved with the Refugee Concerns Interest Section, a small group of educators within TESOL who work with refugee students, resettlement efforts, or other community or international nonprofit organizations. I recently wrote about my experience in our RCIS newsletter.

rwandacover11As I said, Rwanda is a country new-born from refugees. Many people look at 1994 as the re-start of this country, a rebooting that came after the damaging horror of the genocide. Really, the country in 1994 was struggling to survive the extreme effects of the genocide, which left thousands dead and caused nearly two million to flee. Death and flight claimed the intelligentsia and professional populations in large measures, resulting in the loss of nearly 80% of medical professional (for example). The country struggled to rebuild not only the social fiber which allowed people to live in harmony with each other, but the social necessities of a functioning society: hospitals, medical clinics, schools, universities.   

Without getting into the lengthy history that proceeded the genocide, one group of Rwandans, many of whom were designated as Tutsis, fled the country earlier in the century, settling in places like Uganda to the north and wishing to return home. The current president, Paul Kagame, is of this group. He was born outside of his nation, a refugee by birth, and returned as a part of the rebel army that eventually ended the genocide and took power in 1994. The Rwandan government has made the return of refugees to be a priority, with all but nearly 100,000 returning (from Rwanda, Inc. by Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond, Palgrave, 2014). 

The students that I will teach as a part of my fellowship will be young college students, probably 18-21 years old, born just before or after the genocide. Many will have begun their lives on the run from the terror, or will remember living in crowded, diseased refugees camps. Many will have lost parents to genocidaires while in the country, or to the rampant polio and typhoid that claimed thousands more lives in the camps in Burundi and Congo. 

Working with the IRC‘s resettled refugee population in California has prepared me for this challenge of working with students who have seen greater tragedy that I will ever, who have survived hell, who spent their young years not playing tag with their brothers in a suburban back yard but mourning the loss of their siblings, parents, and other family members. This means that I will learn as much from them as they can learn from me. Lessons in verb tenses traded for lessons in forgiveness and resilience? As often is the case for English teachers abroad, I will more likely be the student there.

– Image from Time Magazine, 16 May 1994

– For more information about recent news for refugees repatriating to Rwanda, see this recent article from AllAfrica


“You aren’t going to change the world, so just be nice.”

That sentiment was delivered by a Regional English Language Officer at the end of my first day of training as a English Language Fellow, a program funded through the U.S. State Department that sends English instructors abroad to teach, train, and help improve language and education programs in developing nations. In other words, soft-core diplomats.


I’ve been to a training similar to this, almost five years ago for Fulbright, just that one was conducted on the leafy grounds of the Embassy in Warsaw. I was so jetlagged and disorientated that the only take-away advice I could recall was from an ex-commando just returned from Iraqi. His words for staying safe in a new and different land? “Trust your spidey sense.” Department of State envoys, at least those I have encountered, always seem to approach the world with a wry humor and an almost British sensibility.

Today marked the first day of a week in Washington, D.C., with more than a hundred of my ilk gathered at the Omni Shoreham, a historic venue settled on a vast swath of green acreage not far from Dupont Circle and Georgetown, famous for hosting inaugural balls and a 1964 visit from the Beatles. It also might be haunted, but they don’t seem to put that one in the promotional literature. It’s the stuff of Downton Abbey- sweeping ceilings, crystal chandeliers, silent white-gloved waiters who remove dirty hors d’oeuvres plates so quickly and discreetly that I wonder if they spent time in ninja training.


I arrived last night, disheveled by Potomic humidity and wearing my very unclassy backpacker rucksack. All travelers know the feeling: when all you want to do is curl up in a corner and fall asleep/die/cry. I reached a similar point on my marathon journey home from Windhoek, Namibia, when boarding a plane in Dallas, my final leg in a thirty hour journey. My iPod fell out of my pocket and hit the floor of the plane and I thought to myself, I don’t really need that, anyways; it can just stay there. Last night, after hours of babies and airplanes that ran out of food before getting to my row, I nearly collapsed on the polished counter at the Omni and the posh receptionist raised a brow at me. It all made sense as soon as she checked my reservation: with the English Language Programs Pre-Departure Orientation. Of course. A grubby English teacher.

IMG_3509The training itself, beyond all of the introductions and referring to each other by their host countries (“Oh, have you met Uganda yet? She’s over there.”), isn’t much more fun than a typical job orientation: today was paperwork and how to submit expense reports and what happens if you terminate early. The rest of the week gets juicier: how not to die from diseases, uprisings, or saying something stupid at the wrong place/time. For the evening, though, we ended with a few more introductions and that DOS envoy’s immortal words to a group of fresh-faced teachers, ready to meet their students and tackle their challenges. “You aren’t going to change the world,” she said with a sincere smile, “so just be nice.” My internal pessimist agrees, while my internal optimist looks for some light- maybe the two are so far from each other. A hundred people, leaving this fancy hotel for much more meager dwellings, being nice- and hammering proper verb usage- to start new lives in day-to-day, dusty diplomacy.