“And how stands the city [on a hill] on this winter night?…After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
— From President Ronald Reagan’ Farewell Address, 1989
Of the many things I don’t understand about the Executive Order banning refugees, there is this: how can you look at a photograph of a family fleeing Syria and say that they cannot come here? It is easier to discriminate against people you don’t know. Is it possible that President Trump has never met a Muslim, never met a refugee? I doubt it. I think he’s just racist.
I, on the other hand, have met Muslims and refugees. Many of them. I have worked with various refugee populations on and off for most of my adult life. In 1994, my first year out of college, I lived in Denver for 5 months.
While there I held an assortment of paid and volunteer jobs. I worked as a teacher’s aide at a day care center, and did some babysitting on the side. I wrote and edited articles for Colorado Women News magazine. I wrote a grant proposal for a group of lawyers doing pro bono work on affordable housing. And I was a tutor for a “talk time” conversation practice group for ESL students.
Our talk time group met in a dilapidated classroom of an old building in downtown Denver. The students were refugees and immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, Mexico. Each session, we divided into groups and were given conversation topics. At the start of our first meeting, the lead teacher made a skiing analogy. Here in Colorado, she explained, the snow is plentiful and forgiving. The sun shines over 300 days of the year.
The best skiers are the ones who learn to ski in other parts of the country, like New England. There, you ski in unforgiving cold. It’s common to ski on ice, or encounter rocks that poke up out of the snow.
“Learning English is like skiing on rocks,” she said. “Everything is easy after this.”
One conversation prompt that I remember is when we discussed the phrase “pet peeve.” I was partnered with a teenaged girl who’d recently arrived from Vietnam. She was in the advanced class, and seemed like she’d been rock skiing for awhile. I struggled to explain what a “pet peeve” meant – something unimportant that bothers you. I thought of the two men I shared a house with, friends of a college friend of mine.
“After they get a dish out of the cupboard, they leave the cupboard door open. It drives me crazy.”
“Oh,” she said. “Like when my sister leaves a light on after she leaves the room. I hate that. It’s a waste of electricity!”
Did we talk about other pet peeves, so that my student understood they weren’t limited to housekeeping irritations? I don’t remember. I do remember that Talk Time volunteer was my favorite of the positions I held while living in Denver. I loved the energy exuded by everyone in that class. They were so excited to learn English well enough that they could get jobs, go to school, conduct the various transactions of their new American lives. As a volunteer, I knew little about the situations that had led them to come to the United States, and nothing about all of the hoops they’d jumped through just to be allowed to board the plane.
I wonder where that woman is now – does she still live in Denver? Did she become a citizen? Does she still have family in Vietnam, or anyone trying hard to get to the U.S.? Maybe she has children, and admonishes them to turn off the lights when they leave the room. Maybe they’ve become skiers there in Colorado, where the snow is champagne powder and the sun shines all winter long.