“Why did you leave your country?”

The question so simple and yet so complex. When I ask the class for any “Why” questions, Simon volunteers the example. There are two Simons in the room. This Simon is from Uganda, the other is from Venezuela. Every student here left the country of their birth. The possessive nature of the pronoun. “Your country,” “my country,” “Whose country?”

Each has at least one reason, and they are discussing the reasons with each other, in groups of four. There are usually multiple reasons, and multiple stories. We all shape the stories we tell, which in turn shapes us. But some stories will not be shaped. Civil War in El Salvador. Civil War in Congo. There is always the search. Searching for better jobs. Searching for a new start. Searching for a place where women can go to school. The Nepalese student who told her story of escaping her village after an American man, who later became her husband, visited years ago. The Tibetan grandmother in the first row is shy, but she is here every night. On the class roster, she only has one name. A young man from Iran explains that he had a good life there and didn’t want to leave, but his family was here. They wanted him to join them. Eighteen months ago. Like many in the room, he is a New American.

This is just one night in the school year. I woke up at 5am this morning and the baby fussed and kicked and wiggled, refusing to settle down for a nap today. Mercifully, I got a nap when Mama came home. Still, I should go to sleep now, but I have the urge to convey the spirit in the room tonight. The desire for these students to share their stories with each other. My unique opportunity to open the conversations up, for them to break down their own language barriers and try to tell their stories in English, to each other. My chance to learn from them, so that I can see beyond my own tired, caffeine-fueled eyes and into theirs.

I tell my story of changing coasts, explaining I know it’s not the same, but relaying that I chose to be here just as they did. That we all chose to leave our childhood home in search of something. Is there anything more symbolically American than that?

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