Can you remember a time you felt alone? Really alone? I remember moving to a new school…twice in two years…during the middle school years. Walking into a new classroom with a new teacher and new students was so hard. Now imagine not speaking the language of that new school and that new teacher and those new students. That is a new level of alone.
My friends Tulasha and Paw amaze me. I have had the privilege to watch them grow up under the hardest of hard conditions and become strong young women. As you listen to a small piece of their story, try for a moment to put yourself in their shoes.
Miss Baker’s middle school English as a Second Language class was not so much about book learning as it was about belonging. It is where Paw and Tulasha each found a friend.
Their stories started in two different countries 1,300 miles apart. Tulasha was born in a Nepal refugee camp surrounded by family and friends who looked just like her and spoke her language. Though food and opportunities were limited, she had never known anything different. She would walk outside her bamboo home and always have a friend to play with and as a child that is more than enough. At age 10, everything she had known drastically changed when her family was placed under refugee status in the United States. Though she was excited to touch snow for the first time, school was not as exciting. The first year went all right because there were two students who spoke Nepali and could show her what to do. But then came middle school. No one spoke her language. The bus ride was long and other children mocked her when she could not understand their questions. This school required uniforms and Tulasha had only one uniform to wear all week. Other students noticed and ridiculed her. Tulasha felt so alone. She would cry after school every day and cry every morning before school. It all felt too hard.
It wasn’t until her second year in middle school that she was placed for one hour in an English as a Second Language class. This is where she met Paw.
Paw was also born in a refugee camp, but in Thailand, after her family fled the violence in her parents’ home country of Myanmar. She was 13 when her family received the news that they would be placed in the United States. Paw will never forget her first day of school. Her caseworker picked her up from home and took her into the new school. She knew no English and no one thought to explain to her how to take the school bus home. At the end of the day she followed all the kids out to the busses but did not know which one she should get on. She looked up at all the kids opening the bus windows and staring down at her but she did not have any words to ask for help. Not seeing any other option, she thought she remembered the way home, so she walked. After living in the country only one month, this petite 13 year old girl walked 2 ½ miles home all alone.
Two girls alone in a strange land with language and customs they did not understand. In Miss Baker’s middle school ESL class, Tulasha and Paw found a place of safety and they found each other.
Finally they were in a space with others who could understand their experiences. They understood the chaos of navigating a new world. They could relate to the pressure their parents gave them to go to school, study, and succeed. They couldn’t speak each other’s language—Tulahsa spoke Nepali and Paw spoke Karenni–so their common language was English. They laugh now as they think about how they spoke and wrote notes to each other in broken English. But they gave each other a comfortable space to practice. If they laughed at each other’s mistakes it was a laugh of mutual understanding—this crazy English language is so hard sometimes! For the first time since moving to the U.S., they were having fun at school because they each had found a friend. That same year Paw’s mom discovered an ESL class at a local church and brought her along. Imagine her surprise to find Tulasha there too! Finally they did not feel so alone.
Sadly, Paw and Tulasha went to different high schools. But their years together gave them a starting point for making new friends. Safe spaces, education, kindness, friendship. Each of these things offered through people and places slowly gave Paw and Tulasha the tools and perseverance they needed to move forward with a new life in the United States. They both graduated from high school last year and are finishing their first year of college—the first in their families to do so! They look back on those first years and can’t believe how far they have come. One from Nepal. One from Thailand. They would fly half way across the world to meet each other in Miss Baker’s classroom. Now neighbors and friends in the United States.