Listening to the Stories of Those Around Us

If you talk to anyone long enough, you can always uncover tragedy.

This is especially true of refugees.

As an English teacher, most of the conversations I have with my students focus on how to use the past tense – “What did you do last week?” – or how to deal with health problems  – “I am not feeling well.  I would like to make an appointment with the doctor, please.”

But once in a while, I have a chance to talk one-on-one to students, and it never takes long to uncover the tragedy in their lives.

Last week, I was speaking with a student who moved to the U.S. from a country in Central Africa after spending several years in a refugee camp in Cameroon.  As we discussed his life story, the conversation turned to his family. While he has seven children, including one middle-school daughter who studies constantly and has plans of becoming a doctor, it his oldest son who currently preoccupies his mind.

refugee camps for Chad in Cameroon 

Refugees arrive in the U.S. after spending years living in canvas tents far from their homes.

This son is now a young adult, having moved to the U.S. at the vulnerable age of 17.  Coming to a high school in the U.S. after years of difficulty in his home country and several years in a refugee camp, was not easy.  Now this son has fallen in with a tough, beer-drinking crowd – composed not of fellow refugees, but of Americans.

I was taken off guard by my student’s tears as he talked about his deep disappointment in his son’s behavior – and especially their loss of relationship.  The tears from this grown man fell hard and fast – and they fell right on my heart.

The tragedy of it all is just too much.  For it is not just this one student’s story.  It is the story of Humankind.  It is Our story.

Civil War has been raging off and on in this Central African country since 1965, stemming from French imperialism and sectarian groups vying for power.  In our own country, the Native American culture had already been ravaged by that year, stemming from its own encounter with European imperialism and struggles for power. Fill in the blank here with any country, any culture.  Same story, same tragedy.

refugee camps Cameroon

The consequences of war play out for generations.

Fast forward through time to this English classroom right here in Sioux Falls and to this particular student.  The tragedies of history continue to live on in the present as this young refugee, my student’s firstborn, acts out and refuses to work, hanging out in the evenings with equally misled young people.

The tragedies of nations and generations collide – and culminate in one father’s deep sadness.

As I get to know more of my students’ stories, I know I will uncover more tragedy.  Perhaps this one will seem small in comparison to others.  And yet, in some ways, maybe it is not.  There is nothing small about a father’s tears.

I suppose we cannot stop the story of Humankind, of imperialism and corruption and the greed for power.  But we can consider the consequences of our actions, our votes, and even our thoughts.   And, of course, we can listen to the stories of those around us and let their tears fall on our own hearts.

If you’d like to join the listening of stories and the hospitality of support, please call Kristyne Walth at 731-2009 or email her at to learn how you can join our mentorship program for refugees.

Posted by Julie Boutwell-Peterson

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