Refugee Lesson [essay] by Terese Svoboda

I faced nine surly teenagers: two Sudanese Nuer and a Nubian, two Laotians, two Cubans, and a Bosnian. I didn’t forget the Mexican boy at the table’s end, but Hispanics are so much a part of Nebraska’s farming life, he didn’t register as a refugee. The principal had rounded up a selection of immigrants who were attending Grand Island High School, a huge complex situated almost dead center U.S.A., with the suggestion that I coax out their life stories. What I feared most was that the school would collect these accounts and hang them on the bulletin board, a teenager’s nightmare. I was just here for a day, a visiting writer at a school that didn’t offer writing, checking out what had happened in a Nebraska classroom since I had inhabited it as a zombie so many decades before. I resolved to try to empower these students, to help them use writing to find their own voices, not necessarily the ones the principal hoped to showcase. Foolish? I had only ninety minutes. Worse, none of the kids seemed to know each other—well, maybe the two Nuers did, the way geek boy knows girl outcast, but even they didn’t exchanged glances.

I wanted to try. I started as simply as I could—free association. But never in all my years of teaching, had I heard such rote responses. The Bosnian and the Nuer boy thought too long and too hard, the others changed their minds. Freedom was not something they were good at. Their need to succeed depended on adherence to rules, rules were what they came to this country for after the chaos of their homelands. Okay. I had them list the ten things they couldn’t remember about their childhoods, hoping a more oblique approach would loosen them up. They bent to the task dutifully, the two Cuban girls beside me nervously giggling, the heavyset Laotian girl glowering back at them, the Bosnian peeking at the paper of the Nuer boy sitting next to him.

That morning I had presented the Nuer boy with a small scholarship in exchange for a poem he’d written in his language. I’d lived with his people in the south Sudan many decades earlier, translating their songs. For nearly a year the Nuer took me in, comforted and fed me until they had nothing more to give, then an airplane counting cows from the air landed in my front yard and I had the privilege of flying away. Years later, the same people settled within two hundred miles of my birthplace in Grand Island. I wanted to extend some form of reciprocity with this scholarship, knowing no plane was going to take them home, at least not for a long time. The parents of the Nuer boy, like many of the other immigrants, receive minimum wage in the town’s meatpacking plant, a difficult job for people who have fled violence. Although more Sudanese live in Omaha now than anywhere else outside of their native country, a good number moved out because the Omaha gangs were so brutal, and then more moved from Grand Island’s Hispanic neighborhoods because they were still too rough. But what did the principal know about their neighborhoods? He was surprised to hear that you could buy food from South Sudan, Somalia and Laos in a nearby grocery. Few of the teachers he supervised had ever asked where the refugees came from, or what happened to them that they had to flee so far.

I told the class to pick one of their forgotten experiences and write anything they could remember relating to it. They stared at me blankly. I told them, very firmly, to take up their pens and begin writing. You can’t fail this exercise, I said, you already have the first line written in front of you and now all you have to do is proceed, to pour out what’s already in your brain, write anything that comes to mind that relates to it. Relax, don’t think, just write. It’s called “free-writing.” We did “free association” and now we’re doing “free-writing.” They hesitated, they looked at me as if it were a trick. It was a trick, one that had always worked for me in the past, in many colleges and high schools, often producing wonderful pieces of voice-driven, clear and descriptive writing.

Eventually all the pens moved—except one. The Mexican boy, with a Marine haircut and tattoos, kept stopping to glare at me. When I tried to coax him on, he wrote for a few more seconds, then leaned his head back and stared at the ceiling. Finally, he asked if he could go to the bathroom. I’d never had such a request during this assignment. There’s only two minutes left, I told him. Please stay.

He leveled his eyes at me. They were very dark and he was very serious. I held my ground, although his gaze frightened me. One of the requirements in teaching creative writing after Virginia Tech is the ability to quickly evaluate the mental health of the students. Permission is granted to express their deepest selves, and permission can be dangerous.

But I had no time to ponder this. I had to quickly persuade the others to read from their writing before they crumpled their papers and stared at the wall. Though my request certainly violated the “free” part of the exercise, I needed examples to show the class what was good about their work. The Cuban girl saved me. She read a piece about being beaten by her grandfather, how she couldn’t remember whether she’d eaten the mango she’d been accused of stealing or not. Her tone was serious and matter-of-fact. Then the Laotian girl read that she couldn’t remember her mother ever smiling at her, the Nubian girl riffed on the painful fashion gaffes of a refugee, the Nuer girl tried to remember what it felt like to ride her mother’s back while she walked a hundred miles through often knee-high mud to safety, and the Bosnian tried to remember all the blood, a riff that left the other refugees stunned.

I took a deep breath and asked the Mexican boy to talk. He wouldn’t. Instead he left the room as he had threatened—and I flashed that he was off to get a gun, to finish us off. Not such an unlikely scenario, given the material we had just reviewed. But when he returned, moments later, he picked up his paper and read from it voluntarily, speaking very softly, almost unintelligibly, something about a dead brother. I was too afraid of him to demand—as I had of everyone else–that he read louder.

What was I doing, dabbling in extracting repressed memories from traumatized kids? I backed off, I told the class to exchange a forgotten memory with someone else and to free-write about that, believing that someone else’s prompt would steer them out of themselves, away from such dangerous material. But they weren’t so easily dissembled. This time their writing burned with anger. They used their borrowed line to say how much they hated their new homeland–it was too strange and unwelcoming–they wanted to go back, they wanted to fight whoever had run them off, they thought their parents were cowards.

I was glad to see the principal return. She distributed free snack cards to the cafeteria as if the class had been a trip to the dentist’s. They pocketed their papers before she had a chance to collect them and wandered off into the anonymity of the hallway without a backward glance. Had I accomplished anything? The principal pulled me aside. The Mexican boy wanted to meet with me after his last class.

I agreed. Though I still feared him, I wanted to confront that fear and find out why he so alarmed me.

It was his brother he’d been trying to write about, his brother who’d died in his arms from a gang shootout in San Francisco that had taken his mother’s life too, and left him with a bullet in his back at age fourteen. Afterwards, his father spent $1500 removing gang tattoos from his body but McDonald’s still wouldn’t hire him. Although the boy was trying out for the football team, he was worried that going to practice would leave his little brother alone too much, that he would find his own gang. But it was the pool of blood his older brother had left that he couldn’t get over, he couldn’t write about, couldn’t not write about. As he spoke, the fear I had dissipated.  I saw in his eyes the same look I remembered from interviewing Rwandan and Tibetan torture survivors in New York’s Bellevue hospital. In our forty minutes together, I didn’t say much. He  apologized for disrupting the class. After he left, I gathered up my papers and watched a heavy rain strafe the windows.

 Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay refers to the John Sorenson film “The Quilted Conscience,” a sample of which can be viewed here.]

Image is a still from the above referenced video

Terese Svoboda’s most recent book is the novel Bohemian Girl, selected as one of the 10 best Westerns of 2012 by Booklist. In 2015, her New and Selected Poems and her biography of the poet Lola Ridge will be published. “Refugee Lesson” is an excerpt from the biography. Read more at