Every Thursday, I have the privilege of driving to a hot apartment complex community center and, in the summer heat of Texas, trying to help refugees learn a little English and something of what it takes to live here. In the midst of the debate on immigration, I don’t think we should forget that we have in our midst some people who are, at least to me, real heroes, even if they read a Cyrillic or Arabic script.
Some of them are Liberians who grew up in a civil war so harsh that they speak English but can’t read it because they never went to school. Many are Cubans; a couple of recent arrivals sailed to Honduras and travelled north through Mexico to claim asylum. I think of the quiet Sudanese man who appeared one night with a quiet air of both great dignity and familiarity with horror. There is my Vietnamese friend, a young woman who is here because her father-in-law helped America during the war. When I ask her what she wants to learn about English or about America, she says with utter seriousness, “Everything.” I think of the Uzbek men who demonstrated against corruption and for democracy last year, whose idealism was met by bullets from their own government. Some of them died and some of them fled to another country, leaving behind family, business, everything normal and familiar. Uzbeks, I find, are masters of courtesy, the kind of people who will offer you their food, even if they’ve just fetched it and you’ve already eaten. Otherwise, they seem less like the radicals that the Uzbek government calls them than people who, had they been born here, we would call the backbone of our nation: bakers, construction workers, car mechanics, a seller of textiles. I don’t see them for long; most come for a few weeks and then disappear, many because they find jobs. At the end of the lesson, which I inevitably try to steer into conversation, many of them thank me and call me teacher, but I feel that I’ve learned far more from them than they from me. I have learned that, at the end of the day, even if all else fails and we face tragedy here and abroad, I believe in the enduring grace of that moment when ordinary people from opposite parts of the globe greet each other and sit down to talk.
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