“What am I doing here?”
“What am I doing here?”

As the weeks pass, the desperation for the answer becomes less consuming as I begin to accept the reality of things. I mean, I know what I’m doing. I’m working at a school for refugee students, doing research on better integration methods, and putting that research into effect by following through with plans of action for the school community, but is it really me helping them or them helping me? On a practical note, it’s the former, but on a personal one, it’s definitely the latter.

My experiences alongside these students has put a lot of my own realities into perspective. Before myexperience here, I struggled a lot with gratitude and finding the silver lining of situations in my life. I was engulfed by a constant negative mentality and placed values on the superficial success of life. Even when the consequences of doing so became very clear, I still failed to change my lifestyle and justified my actions by blaming the world for what it gave me. However, the experiences and the attitude of these students has forced my pride, my mindset, and my nearly self-destructive lifestyle aside.

Yes, these students are refugees and I can’t pretend to understand what that really means, but they, like myself, are so much more than the label that was given to them based on the experiences life gave them. They are soccer players, artists, rap fans, and sometimes they’re just like any other typical teenager who hates doing homework. However, my reality check came from realizing that they’re not the typical teenager in so many ways, yet they still have the attitude, faith, and mentality as if nothing happened to them. It is extraordinary how they live their lives without letting the ugly parts of life change or affect them negatively like I did. It’s ironic how I’m the “teacher” in the classroom yet they showed me more about mental health than I could have ever taught them or myself. This was the moment the teacher became the student.

I can honestly say that I am friends with some of these students. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me, yet we were very open with each other about the things we have struggled with in life and how to move forward in a healthy manner. I have enjoyed playing on a small soccer team with them and sharing that passion with each other. Even as I reached a point of homesickness, we were able to get through that yearning together. I am hoping they can continue to have a close-knit community with other students as they have been able to with me through our honesty and openness with each other.

So, what am I doing here? I’m learning, and for once, living.


Am I expendable? Could the work I do here create a lasting impact, or has my American “savior” and “privilege” complex aided my own naivety?

The days at the City of Dublin Education and Training Board’s Youth and Education Service (CDETB YES) program are long, but you can feel the sense of heart that the very limited number of teachers have here. It’s not your typical summer school, and I don’t think it ever could be. How could we normalize students who have witnessed and suffered from tragedies that we ignorantly “share” on Facebook and then call ourselves activists from the safety of our first world country? How could we then expect these human beings to forget about missing their families and focus without excuse in math class as a diligent student should? How can I expect that the data I have to compile for the school is making any of the students’ life better? In reality, it’s not. Therefore, in some aspects of my job, I am expendable. Anybody could teach simple math, but not everybody can check their privilege and learn all about life from young children who barely speak English.

I arrive at the secluded and backstreet building of CDETB’s YES school at 9:00 am. The building’s empty external look comes from its location, but on the other side of its roll down gates is a world of diversity, literally. The students I help teach come from all parts of Africa and Eastern Europe. There are approximately 60-70 students in the school and are split up in groups 1-4, with group 4 being full of students with the best English proficiency waiting to attend Irish school in September. The purpose of the YES program is to help students gain enough English to enroll in Irish school, meaning that some students could be there for years while others for weeks. Essentially, we try to give them enough English to make friends, as we also understand that they may struggle with some academic language in Irish school. Sure, they learn some mathematics, and geography, and other subjects you would expect to be taught at a school, but it is all basic and any interaction in the English language is a lesson in itself. We also go on trips around Ireland in order for students who have recently arrived in Ireland to get to know their “adopted country”, as they call it, their “new home”, better. In essence, I would say, this is a school for life; life in Ireland, life as your own autonomous person, life as a refugee facing adversity.

I’ll be teaching a class on mental health next week. I’ve never had a thorough conversation with anybody about mental health, and it’s a bit tricky navigating that conversation with students who have seen and felt more than one can imagine. It puts things into perspective, you know? I look at my own struggles, privileges, and everything in between, and know that I will leave Ireland with a healthier mind after my experience with these students. Their lives are truly beginning to change mine in terms of how I see my own life. I’m not saying this to add some corniness to this reflection, but it’s the brutal truth that they have placed a reality check on my own “struggles” and “privileges”.

I will also begin researching schools in different European countries that have similar programs to ours in order to learn and advance our own methods. I am hoping to work with my colleague Kate Evans at the Justice Department to get a grant for school uniforms in order to create more unity and structure. I think our biggest challenge is to maintain a fine line of student comfort in the school but also a sense of seriousness in the classroom; uniforms may help students focus better in class but also help them feel connected to one another as more than just refugees.

It’s not a typical school, and maybe that’s why I’m not expendable. Anybody can teach math, but it takes heart, vulnerability, and a rude awakening to be able to learn from these students and recognize our roles in each other’s lives. I’m supposed to be here to learn about life just as much as they are.

I look forward to getting more out of this school and finding something I can implement to create a greater sense of community for these students who are so far away from home, yet bring parts of home with them every day to each other’s lives.