One of my students asked me where I was from.
"Where in America?"
"Ahh, Chicago. Obama!"
Obama is a good man, he said. I told him I was in Chicago on the day Obama became president, and how there were so many celebrations. I asked him where he was from, and he said Somalia.
"Ooh, K’naan!" I said.
"Yes, K’naan," he replied.
I said how much I like his music, and the man replied that K’naan is good but he doesn’t like the music so much. I asked what kind of music the man listens to, and he said that when he was younger (he has gray hair now) he liked Michael Jackson very much. He would go out dancing to Michael Jackson songs. ”Billy Jean” was his favorite, he said, and he started humming the tune, and I began singing some song lyrics.
It’s amazing how Obama and K’naan have become representatives of their countries, and how we as people of their countries recognize them as symbols that trangress cultural divides. A Chicago girl and a Somali man were connected by pieces of each other’s culture that made their ways into the other’s media. Obama on his T.V. screen and K’naan on my computer; Michael Jackson on both our sterios…
I spent two weeks of academic travel on a speck of land in the Mediterranean Sea, in Malta, the most densely populated country in the EU and the landing ground of many boats departing from the northern coast of Africa. These boats have carried over thousands of people forced to flee their homes — people I met from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Chad, Nigeria, Libya… — who are searching for freedom, safety, and happiness. Upon landing in Malta (after leaving the threats of their home countries, traveling for months or sometimes years, into Libya, and then on sea in a small-sized boat on precarious waters for days) illegal immigrants are detained for a mandatory 18 months in a Detention Center. From this point, men, women and children move into Open Centers in Malta.
I volunteered at the Marsa Open Center two nights a week, teaching English language lessons with three other American girls through the NGO GetUp StandUp! (started by university students in Malta), and it was one of the most positive experiences of my life.
It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before, and therefore it was truly life-changing. Teaching these brave people was incredibly rewarding and fun, because the classes were voluntary for them to come to, so they came with such a genuine interest in learning as much English as they could, and their faces lit up with happiness that we were there simply because we wanted to teach them what we knew, and their eyes beamed in recognition of new word meanings and comprehension of new grammar rules, and after our lessons when we had conversations, their eyes beamed in a different way, with sadness and truth and a plead for help, but also with pride in sharing their stories of where they come from, how far and long they’ve traveled, and what they are doing now.
On another night we visited the Hal Far Open Center. Marsa is a center only for men, whereas Hal Far houses families. While the English lessons were going on for adults at Hal Far, some of us girls played intense games of TAG! with the children, and I taught maths to a few bright teenagers.
I had inspiring, uplifting, cross-culturally-connecting conversations with so many of the men I met there. I also had a lot of conversations that left me feeling sad and helpless, because there is so little I can do to improve their un-just situations, and they have worked so hard and come so far to get the better lives which they deserve. One of the students in our class was quiet for most of the lesson, so I assumed his comprehension was low. When I went over to talk to him at the end of our lesson, he spoke fluently to me and revealed that he learned English years before in Sudan, and he now tutors other people in the center. One student was a doctor, and he asked us for the English words to many specific body parts, muscles, bones, and organs. One student used to be a tailor, and he always wears a serious face with a sincere smile, and he dreams of going to America. One student taught me how to write my name in Amharic. And outside of the classroom, in the open center, one teenage boy came over to introduce himself to us, to find out where we are from, From America? Wow! and to shake our hands, and to bump our fists. One of us taught him an addition to that handshake; we fist-bumped, and then blew up our hands as they pulled away. It blew his mind.
"There are no such things as migrants or refugees, only people."
In one of our lessons on synonyms and antonyms, we tried teaching the meaning of the words brave, and courageous. We acted out a few examples. “Like a lion,” we suggested, and pantomimed a roar. Then one of us teachers said to the class, “You all are brave for coming to Malta,” and the whole class became animated in agreement. A student in the back responded, “That’s right, we Make it or Break it!”