I have now taught four 90-minute classes with the same women refugee students connected to the Christian Action Centre for Refugees. They come from countries ranging from Sri Lanka to the Congo. What they all have in common is a lack of status and certainty about their future and the future of their families. As refugees in limbo, they are waiting to find out where they can find stability and security. Hong Kong is only a way station for them. Under the law they cannot work or study beyond a certain level here and neither can their children. Since many refugees reside in Hong Kong for years, even decades, this profoundly affects all of the women, and affects their learning.
Most of the women who have attended the class regularly are enthusiastic about learning regardless of whether they are at an IELTS level 4 or a level 7 (level 6.5 is required for community college admission in Hong Kong while universities here demand level 7 for admission). Nevertheless, in spite of their enthusiasm, the students regularly struggle to get to class on time or attend at all when they cannot find child care or they have to meet with Immigration authorities or a potential sponsor from a host country. According to their case workers, the women also struggle with depression because of the uncertainty and powerlessness they face. All of these factors require patience and empathy from the workshop leader. I am striving to respond to the students with both. The students have indicated that they prefer to learn only with other women. I observed this preference among Somali women whom I taught in Canada more than 25 years ago. I suspect that, for some female students, it feels easier to open up when men are not around.
In each lesson the students have been introduced to a new poem, done vocabulary-matching activities and a fill-in-the-blanks close exercise based on the poem. Finally, they have been invited to write their own poem on the same theme as the one they have learned, while using the new vocabulary. This has seemed like the best approach since the students’ levels of English vary quite a bit within the group and some are not even very literate in their mother tongues. When asked how they feel about this approach, all of the students have said they enjoy it.
So far, we have studied poems by the following poets: Edwin Morgan’s “A View of Things”; “Invisibility” by Renato Rosaldo; “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “Lament for Syria” by 14 year-old Amineh Abou Kerech (who recently won a literary prize in her new country, UK). The students told me they have enjoyed all the poems. They want to continue to use the same method in future lessons. I am hoping to encourage them to try variations later. Some of the students know literary devices such as metaphor and can create original metaphors with confidence in their own poems now. Others struggle, but I encourage the students to help each other since peer learning can be such an important way to build confidence. I have just arranged to teach five more sessions with the group between late September and late November and I look forward to finding new ways to support and challenge the students in their creative writing and self-expression. This kind of teaching requires a student-centred focus and sensitivity to a greater extent than I have had to apply for many years, but working with these women is very rewarding for me as an educator.