By Caitlin Dwyer
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” – Trump campaign press release, December 2015
Omar1 annoyed me for the normal reasons that students annoy teachers. He was often late to class, sauntering in 10 minutes after the break and loudly announcing his presence with, “Am I late?” He spent a lot of time with his phone tucked under his desk, and when I plucked it from his fingers and asked him to focus, he gave me a mournful look, turning his big brown eyes at me to ask forgiveness.
I teach English in Portland, Oregon. Most of my work has been with ELL (English Language Learners), mostly teen and adult students who are studying abroad and plan to return to their countries; some of my work has also been with first-generation Americans who are entering higher education or job training and need to practice academic skills. On a given day, I have students from six or nine different countries, playing verb games, racing to spell “globalization” and “corporate” in teams, learning to compose a topic sentence.
Omar came from the first group. An ELL from Qatar, he wanted to become a pilot and needed English to communicate with air traffic controllers. He was 19 years old: simultaneously arrogant and apologetic, always wearing a college student’s sweatpants and grey hoodie. Despite Oregon’s rainy winters, he wore soccer sandals to school every day, kicking them off under his desk to stretch his toes. When he wanted to work, he was among my brightest and most capable students.
One day toward the end of 2015, with winter break looming, Omar was late again. To practice future tense verbs, we were making posters advertising Portland: We’re going to visit the rose garden! By the time you leave, you’ll have tasted 20 craft beers! I sat Omar with Hiroaki, who was from Japan. I hoped that Omar’s easy fluency with the language would draw out his shy partner — and that Hiro’s concentration was catching. From around the room came the buzz of voices, students laughing and chatting about their weekends, exchanging markers with other groups. By the time I circled back, Hiro had grabbed the markers and the poster and was furiously scribbling by himself, not looking at his partner.
Omar had an emotive face: long and doleful, with a scruff of unshaven shadow and a looseness to his skin, as if he’d recently lost weight. Slumped in the corner, he wasn’t checking his phone; he was just checked out. I sat down next to him. “What’s up?”
“Stuff at home,” he said vaguely, sitting up. He reached for a pen. Hiro, still scribbling, did not seem excited about sharing the task. I stood up. With a wave of his hand, as if batting away something invisible in the air, Omar said, “Can I ask you something?”
I sat down again. He gazed at his hand holding the pen and tapped it against the desk.
“I want to know what something means. A vocabulary,” he said, furrowing his eyebrows. “Kamoo jacket.”
“Sorry?” I asked him to repeat it. Finally, I realized what he was trying to say: “Camel jockey?”
He nodded, and I could see his body turn slightly toward me, his muscles hooking onto his bones and pulling them forward. “A man told me this.”
While Omar had been crossing the street on his way to school, a white man had bumped into him, shoving his shoulder back and making him stumble. Omar lost a sandal, and as he was fumbling for it, the man spat, “camel jockey,” and strode away.
I took a deep breath. Omar had the sense that he’d been insulted, but he didn’t know why or how. I had never had a student come to me like this, to explain that they had been the target of a racial slur. But with comments about “the Muslims” circulating in the American press, it was becoming more common for my students from the Middle East to get tripped, ignored, cut in line. Casual slights; the sort of thing you would ignore if it happened once.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s a slur, an insult. Against Arab people. I’m so sorry that happened.”
He rubbed his chin. “But I do like camels,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.” His family owned a few; they used them for camping trips in the desert. “But he didn’t mean it nicely. He was being rude. Did you say anything back?”
Omar shook his head. He had found his sandal, walked on clutching his textbooks. Stopped to get a coffee because he felt a little shaken up. That’s why he had been late.
I try not to touch my Muslim students, out of respect for propriety, but I couldn’t help myself; I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “Hey kid, if that happens again, you tell me. That’s unacceptable. We don’t —” I couldn’t finish the sentence. “You’re welcome here, you know that.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly, and picked up his pen. Hiro had been sitting nearby, seemingly not listening, but when Omar turned back to his desk, Hiro offered him a pen and shoved the paper between them. For the rest of the class, they worked together on a poster that advertised Portland, City of Roses, as a great place for international students to come and study.
“I am going to create a new special deportation task force, focused on identifying and removing quickly the most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants in America.” – Donald Trump, August 2016
By January 2016, we had been specifically instructed not to talk politics with our students. We were teaching English, not ideology, and we had to remain neutral. So each morning we came into classrooms full of students in hijab, students in Latin American soccer jerseys, students carrying their Chinese-English dictionaries. They had heard snippets of speeches, read headlines, and they wondered about the candidates. Words swirled and caught, and many of them did not have the English to ask the right questions about whether they, too, were going to be sent home.
Who are you voting for? students often asked me in class. I knew they were not asking about politics. Most of them didn’t care about balancing the U.S. budget or gridlock in Congress; they wanted to know if I had their backs.
The Twins were from Venezuela, where the economy was in shambles and unemployment was high. Handsome, fashionable, and smart, they were in their mid-twenties and studying in the U.S. for a year. She was an architect, he a businessman, and they were those rare unicorns in the classroom: students who raised the tenor of discussion for everyone just by their mere presence. We teachers clamored to have them in our classes. We wanted to get beers with them. We loved The Twins.
One day The Twins brought up the election in class. He had a big black beard and a tattoo sleeve — right at home in Portland’s hipster milieu. She wore leather jackets and glossy lipstick. They both often substituted similar-sounding nouns from Spanish into their English sentences.
“Do you have a decisión yet?” he asked.
All of the students stared at me. I shuffled a bit, glanced over my shoulder to see if my boss was around. I opened my hands to them — my daily crew with whom I conjugated verbs and practiced speed-reading strategies — and said, “Well, I teach you guys, so what do you think?”
I saw some students smile and sit back, satisfied. One Korean girl murmured and tucked her hair behind her ear. It saddened me that the answer was that easy: that they could assume, based on the limited political rhetoric they absorbed, that only one party would care about them. I knew that wasn’t entirely true, but it was the effect of politicians’ words, not the intention, that mattered.
The Twins, however, were not quite satisfied. They brought up deportation, a word that had been floating around in the media. Deportación: a cognate in Spanish.
“Are you going to rob a bank?” I asked them. “Do you have a legal visa? Then you have nothing to fear.”
“I think we have an obligación to support others,” the female Twin said, and I saw her glance at the two women next to her, one from Colombia and one from Saudi Arabia.
“I agree,” I said, abandoning all hope of keeping my job if my boss suddenly walked in. “How do you think we can do that?”
The next twenty minutes, we had a lively and thoughtful discussion about immigration. “What does it make you feel like when you hear a presidential candidate talk about deportation squads?” I asked them.
One of The Twins responded, and I could see the eyes of the class on his back, willing him to speak for them: the legal, the law-abiding, the estudiosos. He fixed me with a challenging stare.
“It feels like we are next,” he said.
“We have no idea where these people are coming from. There’s no documentation. There’s no paperwork. There’s nothing. We have to be smart. We have to be vigilant.” – Donald Trump, April 2016
“I don’t know when she was born,” I said into the phone,.
“Does she have any documentation?” the woman asked. She was from the local transportation bureau, and she was being very patient.
“Just her official entry documents. She was born in Congo, and she’s been living in a refugee camp in Uganda for years. She just — she doesn’t know her birthday.”
I had spent an hour the day before trying to get a birth date. Halima and her three children had been in the United States for just three weeks, and her only English seemed to be “Sister,” “Thank you,” and “God bless you.” At the time, I was also a volunteer English teacher with a local charity, trying to help newly arrived refugees adjust to life in America. We had sat in her apartment on the only two pieces of furniture she owned: a wooden rocking chair and a small loveseat. The rest of the apartment was totally empty, except for a large pot of soup simmering on the stove. They had no lamps, no decorations, no games. I had bought them coasters as a welcome present, only to realize they didn’t have cups.
Halima had patiently watched me sketching calendars with a magic marker, had repeated the words month, day, year with me, had taught me to say birthday in Kiswahili. We still couldn’t figure out her birthday. We had a year. “Month,” I kept repeating. “Today is October, 10. Next month is 11, November.” She shook her head, shrugged. It wasn’t a language barrier; it was just that she didn’t know.
Now I was trying to arrange for a driver to take Halima to English lessons. Halima had a disability that limited her walking, so she needed door-to-door transport. “Do you really need her birthday?” I asked. “She’s stuck in her apartment unless we can arrange for a driver. She can’t walk to the bus stop alone.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo suffered intense civil war at the turn of the millennium, and ongoing civil unrest has created large numbers of refugees. To be accepted into the United States, refugees go through a multi-year process in which they are interviewed by U.S. officials multiple times, undergo background checks and medical exams, attend cultural orientation classes, and are screened for “connections to known bad actors,” according to the White House website. Someone, somewhere, had figured out Halima’s birthday. But I couldn’t figure it out, and my lack of month and day meant I was struggling to register her in the services that would help her adjust to American life.
I didn’t know how to explain that a person could be document-less without being undocumented; how to explain that the U.S. government knew everything about her past, about her connections, about her family — but that if a person’s parents were lost in the chaos of civil war, and bureaucracy failed them, and they spent a decade in a foreign city, in a supposedly temporary refugee camp, then there was not much you could do about getting a copy of a birth certificate for the local bus bureau.
“Where will she be going with our services?” the transportation lady asked over the phone.
“She wants to go to the public library,” I said. “She just learned about libraries today. She wants to get a library card.”
It would be her first American document.
“Not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. It’s our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.” – Donald Trump, August 2016
“Teacher,” she said, coming up to me after class, her big eyes glowing. “I listened to Lemonade.”
Fatimah was always animated — she had a skinny hooked nose and pretty brown skin, and her eyes were huge and expressive. For the last five weeks she had been taking my public speaking course, and she was one of the best debaters in the class. Her voice rolled with power and emphasis, punching out her words, lifting into convincing questions, compelling you to listen.
Most people didn’t expect that from Fatimah. She was nineteen, skinny, and she wore the same outfit every day: a black hijab and a long black trench-coat over her clothes. It clasped down the front and billowed like something Trinity would wear in The Matrix. She was from Saudi Arabia, where modest clothing for women is required in public. When many Americans saw her, they expected her to be meek, obedient, oppressed. They didn’t know the sparkling young woman who had dominated the boys in the class for weeks.
I almost hugged her. I had suggested that students interested in American culture should listen to the new Beyoncé album, but I didn’t really expect anyone to take me up on it. I wondered whether she had first listened alone, surreptitiously on her phone, and whether she had later invited her family to listen to “Freedom” with her. I wondered if she could already sing along to “Sorry” by the time she watched the video. I wondered what she’d thought of Beyoncé’s blatant sexuality, the way she owned her body as a vessel for her message.
“Her words, they are so powerful. I couldn’t even believe it. Her lyrics really spoke to me. She’s an incredible woman.”
I knew Fatimah wasn’t going to waltz into class in a sequined bodysuit and stilettos just because she liked Lemonade; that would have been assimilation. Instead, she was investigating her own identity: her relationship with her body and her culture, as well as her ability to relate to and enjoy Beyoncé’s relationship with her own body and American black culture. Through music, she could balance and investigate both.
Fatimah leaned forward, glanced around, and whispered, “She doesn’t need Jay Z. She should totally leave him.” We laughed quietly. She put in her headphones as she walked out the door.
A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. … In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
The words of our politicians may seem meaningless out of context, mere chatter and gab. But to people who are not yet sure if America includes them, the political snippets are far more: they are jabs, uppercuts, slammed doors. They are threats. They are taken out of context and repeated like mantras. None of us are immune to this tendency to soundbite our politicians, and the result is that those clips swirl in our daily lives, harmful shrapnel from the radio, from TV, from the mouths of our neighbors. People may not listen to the whole speech or the whole policy debate, but they hear one thing clearly: that they are not wanted.
For my students who will return to their own countries, they carry back the experiences they had here. When they become nurses and engineers and business owners back home, they will remember those little cuts; they will tell about their studies and what they learned about America. They will remember how they were treated; who pushed them on the street; what music they discovered. They will explain what Americans are like, and how Americans act.
For those who stay — refugees, immigrants — the imposition of resentment into their daily activities is an additional burden. It’s hard enough to live here, trying to learn a new language, a new culture, a new currency; to get a job and study hard and try to form community, without politicians constantly reminding you that they’d rather you not.
To many of us, for whom language is work, for whom language is inevitably and irrevocably personal, making sure that our speech is big enough to include everyone is a daily fight. I teach grammar, but I also teach that our pronouns are “we” and not “them,” that our verbs are “welcome” and not “reject.” My students are simply here to learn. As an English teacher who cares deeply for my students’ welfare, there is no keeping out of politics. They won’t let me, even if I try.
1Names have been changed to protect students
Caitlin Dwyer is a multi-genre writer from Oregon. Her nonfiction, which often focuses on issues of education, identity, and place, has been published in Quartz, The Big Roundtable, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other publications. She has an essay out in the anthology Becoming a Teacher, published by In Fact Books, and is a monthly columnist at Buddhistdoor Global. In 2015, she won a fellowship from Creative Nonfiction’s Writing Pittsburgh Project to develop a longform piece about that city. She holds a Master of Journalism degree with honors from the University of Hong Kong and a B.A. from Pomona College. Learn more at www.caitlindwyer.com. Photo credit Bryan Rupp photography.
Featured image courtesy of Sha’an d’Anthes.