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The Nations Are Walking Into My Classroom

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33–34)

Every weekday morning, at 7:25 a.m., I greet the stranger.

They come to me from the west—from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, El Salvador, Guinea, and Morocco. They come to me from the east—from Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Congo, Sudan, and Uganda. They come with no English, broken English, beautiful English. They come with cares, joys, worries, hopes. They come with mothers, grandfathers, baby sisters, cousins, and big brothers. They come from the land of milk and honey and the land of rice and beans. They come from the lands of the Grey Crowned Crane, the Blue Footed Booby, and the Water Buffalo. They come as worshipers of Buddha, Allah, many gods, no god, and the one true God. They come with broad smiles, solemn stares, and quiet cries. 

But that’s not why they come. They come because their lands are war-torn, desperate, desolate, or dead. They come because names like Castro, Hussein, and Mao—men who promised to fix, but failed—were fixtures in the lives of their families back home. They come because, for many of them, the American Dream is simply the opportunity to lay their heads on real pillows, under real shelter, and experience real rest.

* * * * * * *

Every weekday morning, at 7:25 a.m., the nations come to me. 

I teach English to the international students of Broughton High School, a large public school in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Students from the ends of the earth descend upon my Carolina blue-painted classroom each day for English lessons and for love. 

Teaching these international students is a life-giving privilege. The vast majority are eager to learn and eager to please. Ranging in age from 13 to 18 years old, my students are curious, impressionable, and often rambunctious. As we are approaching the end of another school year, it is humbling and rewarding to see the growth in language skills my students have shown over these last several months. Teaching English to international students is what I do; building relationships with them is what I love.

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While reading one day about the elopement of young Romeo and Juliet, we discuss wedding celebrations across cultures. Though differences naturally exist, the underlying similarity is sure—weddings are large-scale celebrations. 

“Ms. Allen, when you get married, will you invite us to your wedding?” Sifah, a 9th grader, asks excitedly. 

Sifah and her two brothers arrived from Pakistan. She told me she was a Christian during our first conversation and, upon learning that I wasn’t married, confidently promised to be praying for a husband. If God has a wedding in my future, I’d like for Sifah to be there. 

Abdul and Cyrus come from Iraq and Morocco. The week before Easter, I ask my students if they are familiar with Good Friday or Resurrection Sunday. Many of my Latino students from Roman Catholic backgrounds nod their heads. My attention, though, falls on these two boys. Both Muslim, they sit wide-eyed at our discussion about the horror of a crucifixion and the awe of a death-defeating resurrection. Their blank expressions tell me that perhaps this is the first time they’ve ever heard the old, old story. 

Charles and Dembe are Christian brothers from Uganda. In Africa, school wasn’t free. Their family saved and saved for the boys to attend. But when the money ran out, they stayed home and looked after the cows, goats, and other livestock on their father’s land. Having been granted refugee status in July, Charles, Dembe, and their nine other siblings moved with their parents to the States. They are now proud owners of a laptop and a family car. The brothers’ white smiles shine brightly against their beautiful, dark skin—especially when talking about the chance to earn a free education in America. 

Fatima walks in a few minutes early each morning with her usual shy greeting, “Hi, Ms. Allen.” Her voice is barely audible, and she likely won’t speak again during class. Fatima and her brother, Kedar, cannot read or write in their language. They are Rohingya people, refugees from Myanmar. According to the Joshua Project, the Rohingya are 0 percent Christian and are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They’re usually rejected from every place they seek safety and, as a result, have been scattered across Southeast Asia for years. Fatima, Kedar, and their family presumably fled Myanmar aboard a fishing boat and reached Malaysia where they lived under horrific conditions, until arriving in the United States as refugees last year. 

* * * * * * *

Every weekday morning, at 7:25 a.m., the unreached, the outcast, the lost are loved by me. 

I greet the sojourner and I teach the sojourner—for I was a sojourner, too. I was a stranger, an alien, an outcast. I was a lost sheep, and my Shepherd found me. And as a response to that free gift of grace, I am committed to welcoming the stranger and loving each of them as myself. This, after all, is what my Savior, the Good Shepherd, the Welcomer, has asked me to do. 


*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.


Editors’ note: This essay was chosen as part of the Faith and Work Dinner being hosted by Every Square Inch and sponsored by EDGE Mentoring and Cerulean Restaurant at our 2016 National Women’s Conference next month, June 16 to 18 in Indianapolis. Space at TGCW16 is running out, so register for the conference soon!

EDGE is a national mentoring organization for emerging leaders that combines personal, professional, and spiritual development in one experience. If you’re looking to mentor, or be mentored, you can find out more at http://www.edgementoring.org/.

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