As we close out this academic year, a bulletin from one of our students working in French beyond the Duke campus wall.
James Johnson, class of 2017, April-May 2015
Last semester, I had the opportunity to work with a number of refugees from the Central African Republic. Our partnership developed out of the service-learning component of Professor Deborah Reisinger’s course, Issues in Global Displacement: Voix Francophones, where our goal was to developed a shared understanding of language and culture. The families we worked with were new arrivals to Durham, from Congo, the CAR, and the DRC, and we worked with them from their first days in the United States.
My class partners made weekly visits to our family’s apartment each week, where I worked with the children on their homework, reading books in English and helping them with their math. In addition to supporting their learning, I learned a great deal about the culture of the Central African Republic, about what it means to be a refugee – both logistically and legally – and about the challenges of adapting to life in America. During the reflection sessions of the course, we discussed the impact of our partnership, including setting realistic goals for us both. Although understanding our exact impact is difficult, I was able to see improvement in the children’s English abilities as the semester progressed, as well as their increased understanding of American customs and practices. Nevertheless, I still struggled to understand what it was like to be a refugee. I was curious to learn more, and with this in mind, I began to approach our time together differently.
While I continued to help the kids develop their reading skills, I also inquired more about their friends at school. I learned some difficult truths about how they were treated by their peers at school, and was moved by the descriptions of marginalization they shared. I began to organize more activities with them to get to know them even better, taking them on picnics in the Duke Gardens and out in the community. It was through events like this that I saw the real impact of the partnership: we became friends .
At the end of the course, my group conducted interviews with our partners to put on the French in Durham web site. When we celebrated the web site launch this spring, I was happy to see the family I had worked with again. One of the kids is now much more confident; seeing this transition was the most powerful element of this project for me. The family has since been able to move into a larger apartment, and another daughter has joined them in the U.S. Their mother now has a green card, her driver’s license, and a car. This experience has helped me grow and learn about what it means to be a refugee in the U.S. while helping a Francophone family adapt to living in a brand new place with a different official language.