Pilgrims on New Shores

Looking for Freedom and Missing Mom’s Homemade Meals

In my home country, the U.S., people everywhere are now packing and looking at map apps to figure out which route to their relatives’ has the least traffic. Thursday is Thanksgiving in America, a time when people do two simple things: we gather with family and we stop to reflect on what we’re thankful for. And we eat a ton of savory food and watch American football, but I won’t dwell on the things I miss (too much).

This week Indonesia celebrates Teacher Appreciation Day. My Indonesian friends are good at keeping things social and supportive, and they love food. If we went back to Maryland for Thanksgiving–which we can’t, because it’s too far–we’d have to bring back some snacks for our friends in Jakarta. My husband repeatedly forgets to bring back oleh-oleh (tasty treats from where he has traveled) for his colleagues, and they gently tease him about that. I guess it’s a little hard to travel with pumpkin-pecan pie, but if we were going home for Thanksgiving, we’d have to bring back a little piece of home to share with our friends.

But many of our teachers can’t go home–not because it’s too far, but because they’re not welcome or not safe. As with the original Thanksgiving feasters, America’s pilgrims, our refugee teachers would be in danger if they returned to Afghanistan or Iran, places that are unstable at best and violent at worst. Governments can’t protect their citizens in some cases, or torture, imprison or do worse to them in others.

Two-thirds of girls in Afghanistan still can’t go to school; they weave garments, beg or pick trash to bring in meager cash for their families. Even among boys, and even 16 years after the U.S.-led military intervention ousted the Taliban 34 percent are illiterate, according to Human Rights Watch. Going home is not only unsafe, there is not much of a life or a future there. Of course, this line of thinking skips over the fact that refugees in Jakarta don’t have passports or money, so they can’t travel home even if they were welcome. For some, it has been five lonely years since they last had a homemade meal with their mothers and fathers.
In spite of their painful pasts, they are doing everything in their power to not only survive in this foreign land, Indonesia, but to heal and, remarkably, give back to those who have less than they do. Our refugee teachers who are educated or who have learned English at Roshan give back abundantly.

They spend hours (400, to be precise, collectively) preparing lessons, meeting with co-teachers to refine review sessions, assembling materials to do an art project with children, sitting with a crying child on the grass to comfort him or her, or enthusiastically explaining how to calculate the area of a triangle. They problem solve, scrub bathroom floors, organize enrollment and registration, organize students to put on fabulous performances at end of year parties, and share their own food when a student has nothing to eat. These are some of most generous, resilient people I have known.

I am thankful to know them and I’m inspired by them. That sounds cliche and does not adequately capture how truly moved I am by their grit and generosity. People think we who try to support Roshan do this to help. In truth, my refugee friends have taught me far more about what’s important in life than I have taught them. Our Indonesian teachers and expat volunteers–all of whom also pour hours of love, talent and devotion into Roshan–have told me the same thing. “I thought I could maybe be a blessing to refugees by coming to help,” they say. “But honestly, I have been far more blessed by being part of this community than I contributed.”

Roshan’s refugee teachers have struggled for basic rights–safety, education, freedom–yet they teach others how to live with generosity and good humor. They seem to have have arrived on strange new shores after enduring plenty of hardships but, far from home, look to the future with optimism and hope. That is something to be thankful for indeed.