Over the weekend, I spent a day at the Emily Griffith school located in Downtown Denver. I was at an orientation session for the Colorado Refugee ESL program. When I first walked in, I zoned in on the elaborate food spread in the back of the room. If you’re gonna get me somewhere at 8am on a Saturday morning, best to provide lots of food! After I grazed my way through the snacks table, I noticed a white board with books lined up along the marker rail. Two that caught my eye were, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, and The Poisonwood BibleOne of my favorite books, I was surprised to see The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver along the rail with the other refugee stories but when you really think about that book, it completely makes sense with the story being focused on the Congo region of Africa. To me, I’d always focused on the Price family and their roles in the Congo and never thought past to the rest of the cast in the story. I haven’t read it in a while and look forward to reading it again with this lens.

I’d had a copy of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down on my nightstand for years until I finally picked it up. I think I’d snagged it out of a Little Free Library. It’s an incredible story of a young Hmong child, Lia Lee, and what her family endures trying to get her help for her epilepsy through Western medicine while trying to honor their own customs from Laos. The Lees were a refugee family who spoke no English who did not believe in Western medicine, only their own traditional approach which included shamanism. The author, Anne Fadiman does a great job sharing both sides of this story, capturing the doctors voices as well as that of the family.

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom is the book that finally got me to sign up for the Colorado Refugee ESL Program. I’d been thinking about joining the program for quite a while and after reading The Newcomers, I realized how important the program is to those who are new here and speak little or no English. Author Helen Thorpe spent a year in a classroom in South High School, right here in Denver, in the ELA (English Language Acquisition)  classroom. Over this year, she forged relationships with most of the twenty-two immigrant teens, helping them in class, interviewing them and even going home with them to meet their families. Through these relationships she was able to form a picture for the rest of us, showing how distressing the change to an American lifestyle can be for these families.

The training was a real eye-opener, as we spent most of the day learning about what a refugee is and the places they come from, not learning how to teach English as a second language as I had pictured. By the end of the day, it made sense. We must first know who these people are and where they come from, before we can even begin to think we can help them.