Chris Bargeron current serves at Heartland Alliance in Chicago, where he teaches English literacy and job readiness to refugees. He shares community with Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters and two other volunteers at House of Connections.
Chris with fellow volunteers MP Baush and Amelia Vojt.
As my morning begins every single day, I still haven’t gotten over the fact that even though all of the refugees I serve come from different backgrounds and walks of life, they share a common goal and desire: to learn English to help them live the life they have been dreaming of. It doesn’t matter where they came from—Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria—everybody seems to know how to say “Hello!” or “Good morning teacher!” There’s also a few sprinkling of “As-salām 'alaykum” (‘hello’ in Arabic) to the employment specialist, who has a native Arabic tongue.
Each of these human beings has a story that they carry with them as they go about their daily routine. To the common every folk, they are labeled as refugees. To some, this label has a negative connotation that makes it hard to see them for who they really are: one of us living on this Earth. They will try to live a normal life amidst the turmoil that still resides in their home country. But we all understand that Heartland Alliance will always be a welcoming safe haven for those who just want to learn English, a skill that has been beautifully given to most of the people living in the United States.
It’s a tough road that refugees journey. For most of us in the United States, deciding to leave our country and to go to someplace that we’re not familiar with usually means that we’re on vacation. But for thousands of refugees, it means that they’re trying to survive. And by no means is this for just a few weeks; it is for a lifetime.
Before coming to Heartland Alliance, I always thought of teaching English as a Second Language as an unknown territory that I would never be able to journey into. “How would I ever be able to communicate what I’m trying to saying to them? What if I don’t teach English perfectly? What if I actually don’t know what I’m doing?” These are just a few of the questions that crossed my mind during my discernment process coming into my service year as a Dominican Volunteer.
I’ve come to realize that teaching English to those of other native tongues is simply being able to talk to them and being able to communicate my thoughts. It’s not about constant 7 page lesson plans explaining the process of how to find the area of different geometric figures, like I thought based on studying education in college. My lesson plan consists of what am I going to talk to them about today.
Chris instructing his English literacy students.
There’s something special about being around my participants on a daily basis. I teach participants at a literacy level of English. This means they speak minimal to no English, and their reading and writing skills are equally limited. Still, having a multiple conversations and laughs throughout an hour class period allows me to see something in them that I’m very familiar with. What I see in them is God.
This vision of God transcends what I see in the literacy level classroom and also appears in the job readiness class I lead during the week. After entering the US, a refugee only has a certain amount of time to receive Public Aid. Our job class helps refugees gain the interview and job skills that they need in order to obtain a job as quickly as possible, while still being mindful of their need for English language training. I see something in every one of the job readiness participants. They have such a desire to be able to get a job that they “go to work” in job class. They have so much fun with it, too! One day we were learning what to do when you have an appointment, are sick, or are going to be late for work, and together we made a script on how to call your boss. In that class it didn’t even occur to me that each of them once had no knowledge of the English language. It reminded me that we are all the same on this Earth; we just have unique, individual characteristics that define who we are.
Before I came to Heartland, I was studying Math and Special Education in college. I had already been immersed with Educational history, techniques, philosophies, and lesson plans that would help me become a teacher. However, in all of my classes, student teaching days, and observations, I never received a piece of information so essential and so important about education as I did from one of my participants this year. He said, “The easy way is not good for learning.” It’s remarkable that he said such a thing in English; and what a simple but incredible piece of knowledge! Everyone should follow it. The quote is now posted in that classroom, along with translations in several different languages for all of the participants to see. Bright occurrences like these make me thankful for being blessed with all that I have, especially with the talents to be able to help those who just want to live life normally, like most of us do every day.
I do have to say that there are times when participants aren’t all so lucky when they come here. The same participant who gave me the great quote to base my educational philosophy on, couldn’t do anything other than go back home when his father, back in Syria, passed away. This would be okay if he were able to come back to the US to continue to pursue his new life, but he isn’t allowed to come back here because already he fled his country from the violence.
These are the struggles that refugees face every day. To put it in perspective, would you flee your country to go to some unknown country where you don’t know the language? Would you be willing to leave behind your family to do so? Sometimes refugees don’t have the choice to bring their family; most of the time they simply can’t. Quite frankly, refugees break boundaries and barriers of the “I can’t” mentality. Some people think a motivational speaker helps make a difference in their lives. Well, I have about 20 motivational speakers every day. I help them learn English and they help me find new meaning to life; they show me different ways that I can see the needs of the world.
Heartland participants and even staff regularly say the Islamic term “Insha’Allah,” which means “God (Allah) willing” or “if God (Allah) wills it.” It is a beautiful term that gives so much meaning to continuing to find justice for these participants. I feel that God wills all of the works we at Heartland and others do to help the alleviate injustices of refugees. Awareness of the injustices and challenges refugees face shouldn’t stop with me. It should continue to all communities and neighborhoods, especially through education refugees and how difficult their journey is.
I get up every morning to see these participants because I continue to be a blessing in their lives and because they bless mine. I am grateful that I am blessed with their culture, their enthusiasm, and their lives. I hope to continue to experience this kind of blessing past this year of service and in my future, “Insha’Allah.”
Insha'Allah written in Arabic caligraphy.
To learn more information about the Heartland Alliance agency, or for information on contributing to this agency, visit the Heartland Alliance website at www.heartlandalliance.org.