20 June 2021: World Refugee Day



As many nations have responded to Covid-19 with closed borders World Refugee Day on 20 June will surely feel even more poignant. 20 is a marker of time as the United Nations claim that «every minute 20 people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror», a powerful reminder that time is punctuated with the displacement of peoples.

Here I share some reflections on an experience teaching English for the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Walking into the residential centre outside the historical part of Rome the first thing that strikes you is the large map emblazoned on the wall. Having always heard that all roads lead to Rome, the more troubling undertone of that statement is how those roads are travelled. The map was punctured with pins: a pin for every temporary residency. A contrast sat uncomfortably with me because I was there as a trainee priest, from a position of relative comfort and stability.

Every pin on the map ventriloquised a story that gradually through Italian and English classes residents were beginning to articulate in other tongues. In language learning while the content is technical with verb tables, adjectives, nouns and so on, the context of learning is informal and it was a privilege to begin to hear residents narrate their stories in the language they were learning.

One student already had beginners’ level English and I was intrigued as to where he learned to speak with a Midland accent. He explained that British soldiers in Afghanistan casually taught him lessons. Uncanny that it fell to another Midlander to continue those lessons.

Language learning soon becomes personal. This is a dynamic I learned early in asking students to use adjectives to describe where they live. There was caution in the air when describing home and it was a reminder, if needed, that it would be a traumatic topic for some.

Proofing the students’ work I was moved to tears as someone detailed a large space with a hard floor and how they shared the sleeping area with 12 others from his country. I presumed that all the students were living in the residential centres spread throughout Rome. How wrong I had been.

This student continued describing where they lived and wanted to point to its location. «Out there», they explained, gesturing to the classroom window. Hidden behind the high wall of the residential centre’s car park sat an Italian Red Cross tent where they were living. Tall walls had hidden from public view the reality of displacement. Car parks should house cars, not people.

Another language lesson demonstrated how the development of a vocabulary is a vital tool in empowering people to speak their truth. On a seemingly basic afternoon class about the weather a new factor in displacement emerged. While describing how sunny it is in Rome and how rainy it is in England, a hand shot up: «what’s the English for diluvio?».

Students sometimes used Italian words because they were learning the two languages simultaneously to help their orientation in Italy and beyond. She was searching the English term for flood. Amazed at the request, I asked her to explain more fully why she wanted to use that word. She replied in confident English, «I am in Rome because of the flood».

Climate-based displacement and especially flood induced displacement is a growing international concern. While we carry refillable water bottles and upcycle clothes, flooding wipes out villages from existence creating a sudden housing crisis. Most displacement is within a particular country, but with regions experiencing more frequent flooding and to a greater extent there is an increased pressure on space and resources.

In these three simple examples of drawing pins and the words home and flood there are insights into the specificity behind an international day such as World Refugee Day. Of course, there are statistics, trends, and patterns, but there are always people, places, and names.

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