By Theresa Howell
[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]
“…we live in story, we act in story, we remember in story; storytelling echoes our humanness.” (Randall, 1995)
It is through the telling of stories and the listening that I have learned about how important story can be for breaking down barriers. In my classroom, I have witnessed many adult lives from around the globe. As an EAL instructor for a federally funded settlement English language program, I have had newcomer students that range from recent refugees from war torn regions to skilled immigrant workers from first world locations. Within the refugee population, many stories have crossed my path that could rivet the average person’s attention and immobilize their senses. As a child from a diverse life of circumstance as well as being an empathetic human being, I have learned that listening with intention and no judgement is imperative. Years of training and work in the Child and Youth Care field mixed with an anthropology undergraduate degree has allowed me some background into what is required and needed within these storied disclosures. As counselors we were taught to be present and listen. Also as an ongoing anthropological practitioner, the incorporation of cultural relativism whereby a person suspends any ethnocentric judgement in order to appreciate and understand other cultures (O’Neil, 2013), is important. It is one of the main tenets in cultural anthropology studies. Therefore, I stand present in quiet resolve while holding no judgement allowing the stories to unfold. For me, as educator, this is critical.
As I say this, I reflect on an adult refugee student who came from Iraq via Dubai. I’m sharing her story here. Her name was Sherry. She was a pretty young lady with hazel coloured doe-like eyes. Her strawberry blond hair and petite stature hid a woman whose mental strength was twenty times her physical size. At the time we met, she was verging on twenty eight years old; two years older than my eldest daughter but many life time’s apart. Actually, she wasn’t in my class but the class level below ours. However, every Thursday we had a “Conversation Club” whereby the Level 4 and level 5 students would come together to talk about cultural events and other issues that stimulated them to speak in a more relaxed context. The instructors and local volunteers alternated weekly facilitation roles for these conversation circles. During these times, one of the two instructors would sit in with a group while the other instructor would float from group to group monitoring the volunteers’ involvement.
From previous interactions, I gleaned some specific information about Sherry via another instructor. “She is so difficult. She spouts up about being Christian when others are talking about their Islamic beliefs, it disturbs the other students.” This seemed to be the instructor’s way of saying she didn’t want any religious tension in her classroom. I realized in this moment that something was awry and started building bridges of trust with Sherry. Each day that she arrived to school, I would greet her with a smile and morning salutation to let her know her presence was appreciated and welcomed. As time wore on she took time to stop and hold some small chit chat before going into her classroom. However, it was the one Conversation Club day that really broke through the phantom barrier into a new sense of connectedness. We were in our groups; Sherry and four other students were in the one I was facilitating this particular Thursday morning. We were discussing the upcoming Remembrance Day holiday and its meaning. We opened up the discussion with questions for the students to ponder and reflect upon thereby initiating conversation. One of the questions touched on their opinion about war. As the responses moved around the table the majority of the students responded in the standard way of stating that “it is horrific and wished we could all live peacefully.” As it came around to Sherry, I could see her eyes gloss over with tears. She started to say, “Every day, I thank GOD I’m in Canada”. As a couple of tears found their way down her round, rosy cheeks, I grabbed the tissue box and quietly put it between us. Quietly, I responded with a reassuring “yes, we are all thankful you are here too, Sherry.” As she wiped the tears from her cheeks and eyes, she went on to tell her story of her last day in her small village in southern Iraq. Her family was locked inside their home. “My mother, father and brother were crouched down while the shelling and gunfire were ringing out in the streets outside our home. We were Christian.” A primary Islamic state was the desired preference. As the gunfire got closer, her father demanded that she run and hide. Being a respectful daughter, she obliged. As she shrunk and hid inside an underground dugout that their family had made, “I heard heavy footsteps above. Then, a flurry of screams and shots being fired rang out. This moment lasted forever” she said, “Once all the noise stopped, I looked carefully from my underground hideout. When I crawled out of the space from where I was hiding, I found my mother, father and brother lying dead in pools of blood that surrounded their bodies. I ran over to my mother and held her bloody head in my hands and cried to God. WHY!!??. Later on that evening, once the guns were silent, my uncle came by and whisked me away. We made our way southeast to Dubai.” As she unfurled her story, our group began to realize that none of us could reconcile with this set of circumstances thrust upon a young girl. As an educator/counsellor, I knew I needed to sit mindfully attending to this moment and that was the best action I could take. She went on to talk of how through many years of living in Dubai she soon learned to find her way independently. It was then that she had applied to Canada as a refugee. She knew if she was able to start a new life somewhere far away from the memory that haunted her, it would allow her some solace. She told us that when she was on the plane to Canada, she cried. She established that they were not tears of sadness but of happiness. She knew that she was given this gift as she said “from GOD.” No matter the reasons, she was finally finding happiness in a life that had its lion’s share of sadness. As she wound down, I pulled her close and gave her the biggest hug. The only thing I could think to say was “you are such a brave young woman. Your honesty inspires me. Thank you.” We were all stunned by the story. It reshaped our perspective. From that day onwards to the moment Sherry left the program, new bonds between students were formed. The Muslim students were especially empathetic and a group of them would surround her at breaktime making an effort to build back the broken trust created by others.
O’Neil, Dennis (2013) Glossary of terms: Cultural relativity. What is Anthropology? Retrieved from http://anthro.palomar.edu/intro/glossary.htm
Randall, W. (1995). The stories we are: An essay on self-creation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: Theresa K. Howell has been a LINC Instructor at ISSofBC for over eight years. At the time of writing this article, she was in the process of achieving her MA in Arts Education at SFU. This piece is from her thesis “Storied Lives; Storytelling and Change” and all names have been changed to protect people’s identities.
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Original reference information:
Howell, T. K. (2016, Winter). Transformation through Storytelling in an EAL Classroom. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf