Moving Beyond Labels

Over the last few days, I have been working at SPIRASI, Ireland’s only NGO devoted to providing education, integration, and rehabilitation services to adult asylum seekers or refugee victims of torture and trauma. In preparation to teach my own English class on health literacy, I have recently been serving as an assistant English teacher to students with little to no proficiency in the language.

The first time I walked in to a SPIRASI classroom, I saw only a sea of culturally diverse migrants. Labels like the “North Korean student,” “the Iranian refugee,” and “Syrian asylum seeker” came to me instinctively, as I unwittingly matched their countries of origin to reflect their entire identity. However, with every passing day, I am beginning to understand exactly how limiting this type of perspective can be. While I have much more to learn about the students, when I walk in to the classroom now, I see Nona, the sweet, elderly woman with a talent for baking, matched in intensity only by her developed knowledge of current events. I see Joban, our goofy and fun-loving class-clown who picks up novel vocabulary words with a speed unmatched by most. I see Samuel, a connoisseur of music and lover of dance, currently in the process of releasing yet another album. Day after day, I am coming to better understand the wide array of personalities, experiences, and cultural backgrounds all clumped together under the single word, “refugee.” *names modified to maintain privacy of clients*

While I feel I am finally starting to form relationships that trespass the confinements of identity labels, I have so much more to learn about the students. My personal desire to solve the puzzle of the students’ unique identities incentivizes me to continue teaching them as much English as possible. The more I teach them, the better they are able to express themselves, and consequently, help me understand who they truly are. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” It wasn’t until I started to work with individuals whose expression of self was confined to the limited set of words they knew that I recognized the truth encapsulated by Wittgenstein’s words.

As I contemplate what it truly means to be a refugee or asylum seeker through my work, I reflect upon my own identity. Growing up to immigrant parents, I have often danced between two different cultures. While Hindi was my first language, I was fortunate to have gone to a school that taught me English from a young ageAs I work with students limited in their English but rich in their cultural backgrounds, I am beginning to recognize the influential role language has played in my own bicultural upbringing. With words, I have felt empowered to paint a picture of the culturally disparate grounds that have bred many of my own unique values, beliefs, and thoughts. As the weeks go on, I hope to continue providing my students with English language tools for them to similarly express themselves to the world and in turn, make Ireland their own.

Though part of my job is to help teach English and eventually implement my own health literacy course, the students have taught me much more about the gravity of strong language and communication skills than I could ever hope to demonstrate during our lessons. As I go forward, I hope to further understand the undefinable quality of words like refugee and asylum seeker.