The students and I went down to the Salvation Army and hung out with the people from war-torn lands again ("immigrants and refugees" sounds too CNN.) We played games and talked and laughed and joked and messed around on the guitar. These people come from severely fucked-up countries where I don't even know if they get to go to school, and they all know five languages. WTF AMERICA? Here I, with my multiple degrees from fancy schools and world-travel creds, speak like two and a half. The 15-year-old Iraqi boy and the young mom from Somalia put me to shame.
This woman Taghreed who's from Iraq was slogging through a Norwegian language workbook, one I too used long ago, intended to introduce newcomers to Norway. The characters in the book are multicultural, but the book is straight-up traditional classroom pedagogy, all reading, writing, and memorization, the opposite of the experiential/practical philosophy I work with. I helped her complete an outdated acrostic puzzle and then looked at her and said, "OK. What do you really want to know? What do you need?" She set down the workbook and said, "I don't know how to ask for things in the grocery store or the pharmacy. There's this hair cream I can't find here, and no one understands when I try to explain what it is." We wrote down the key words and phrases like I am looking for and not conditioner and I drew little pictures to go along with them and then we practiced a roleplay. And she was so happy. It was such a simple but useful tool, the flint to go with the stone.
I played Scrabble with this funny 19-year-old girl Inez from Rwanda and two of the three insanely tall, willowy and beautiful teenage brothers from Burundi. Inez declared that you could only play two letters at a time. So we made a million tiny Norwegian words and ended up with an impenetrable clump.
Also there are Ayan and Omar from Somalia, and their two-year-old son Maddi, born in Norway, big and robust as a four-year-old, speaking his own language that no one understands. Ayan has a husky voice and laughs a lot and is one of those people who radiates smartness, and her Norwegian is great. The skin on her hands and at the outer edge of her cheeks before it disappears under her hijab is covered in ropy/splattery scar tissue. Mustafa, Taghreed's 15-year-old son, played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on acoustic guitar. Albert from Chechnya insisted that there must be a winner of our card game and that we must play by exact rules, which he then cheated on, and carefully drew a dagger with a blue ballpoint pen, running the pen along the curve of the blade again and again until it was thick and inky. And had this conversation with my student Hugo:
Albert: In America, do you fight?
Hugo: What do you mean?
Albert: You know, when someone comes up to you and they want to fight. Do you fight, or do you get beat up?
Hugo (who is 5'8" and loves musical theater): Uh...I fight?
Albert: Good. Me too. See, in Norway, I have asked someone else this question, and they said they would run away and get help! Norwegians are pussies.
There are many questions I wish I could ask them. Like about child soldiers in Burundi and the annihilation of Grozny and warlords in Somalia. And, how did you scrape together the money to get to Norway? Are you Tutsi or Hutu? Where did Ayan's scars come from? And the one I can never ask that contains all the answers, What the fuck have you seen in your life?
This thing happened once when I was traveling with my Russian friend Natasja. We were sitting at separate tables in a cafe in Berlin. (After four weeks together, we needed space.) She got up to go order a coffee, and she left her passport lying on the table. "Wait, you should put that away," I said. She looked down at it and said, "No one is going to want my passport."
Sometimes I think my most valuable possession is my house, or the contents of my hard drive, or the eighteen years' worth of journals in my writing studio. It's not. It's the dumb luck of my national origin.