ESL Teacher Deborah Johnson

“We Need Them”A Teacher’s Mission

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Thursday August 01, 2013

I don’t know her name, but I’ll call her Barbara. A 68-year-old woman from the Congo, Barbara attended Deborah Johnson’s English as a Second Language (ESL) class, every single day. One day, Deborah noticed Barbara blankly staring at the chalkboard while she frantically started scratching letters in her ESL notebook. Deborah walked over to Barbara’s desk and looked over her shoulder at the notebook. All the answers to the questions were incorrect. Deborah realized that Barbara had never written before, or even held a pencil.

On another occasion, Deborah offered her student  a ride home. Barbara trusted her mentor – she accepted. On the way to the house, Deborah noticed a frightened look on Barbara’s face.   She was panicking, and seized the door handle, ready to leap out of the moving car. Deborah tried to calm her, but Barbara understood no English. Deborah pulled over at a local church, while Barbara phoned her brother, who lives in the area. When he arrived, he said  he was not surprised by his sister’s reaction – she had been kidnapped as a young girl in the Congo. Something had happened to make her believe she was being kidnapped again. Calmed by her brother, Barbara got back into the car.

As they walked up the steps to the house, Barbara grabbed Deborah’s hand, and pulled her toward the bedroom. Deborah’s mouth fell when she saw an American Flag covering an entire wall. Barbara was proud that America had taken her in. More so, perhaps Barbara needed to show her mentor what she had done for her – Deborah had helped Barbara pursue an opportunity at a life free of exploitation. 

This is just a sampling of the stories of refugees relocated in Vermont that South Burlington resident, Deborah Johnson, shared with me as we sat in her living room on a recent sweltering afternoon. In 2009, she retired as an English teacher from Mount Mansfield High School. What was she to do with her time? Helping people like Barbara would become Deborah’s mission. She put to use her certificate in teaching ESL and Applied Linguistics, obtained through Saint Michael’s College in the 1990’s, and started teaching ESL to refugees. 

Did Deborah have any notion that she’d not only be a teacher, but a friend, and a confidante to those who came from horrific experiences? 

Johnson recalled another  ESL student’s difficult journey as a refugee. Akbar, a native of Iraq, was imprisoned the day after he and his wife were married, and not released until 7 years later. “He was tortured,” Deborah said. She paused, shaking her head in disbelief. The humidity in the room grew more oppressive. Deborah took a deep breath before continuing. Unable to find a job after his release, Akbar and his wife were “starving,” she said. But they managed to obtain funds to enter a lottery for a chance to live in the U.S. “They won!” Deborah cheered.  Refugees are not allowed in the U.S without a sponsor, she explained.  Fortunately, Akbar’s brother lives in the U.S. Now, Akbar and his wife live in Texas, where he works with a close-knit Iraqi community.

The message Deborah seems to impart through these stories: Be wary of judging others. For, as she said, “We don’t always know the circumstances which people come from.” 

Many refugees  bring skills from their home countries, such as Egor Voresnky, a thyroid cancer physician from Ukraine, who came to Vermont after the Chernobyl disaster. But, before working here, he had to learn our language and medical practice. He studied English with Deborah for five years, and spent time observing in operating rooms, visiting patients, and learning about medical equipment he had never seen before. Eventually, he was assigned as a medical resident in Maryland, where he experienced the vernacular of a mostly African American community, a very different demographic from Vermont, and Chernobyl. 
Some of Deborah’s ESL students, as Fulbright scholars, are learning new skills. A Yemeni woman, whose culture forbids the education of females, is studying Political Science. She is the first in her family to have an opportunity to be educated. “She had the courage to come over and do this,” Deborah said. A Congolese woman is studying crop rotation and agriculture. An African man is learning how to dig wells. 

The second message Deborah hopes we hear: “The refugees have work ethics. They want to be productive citizens.” 

Deborah believes “it’s important for refugees to learn English.” But she concedes, “It’s important for them to keep their culture.” She jabbed her finger into her chest, emphasizing, “We need it. They’re valuable.” She explained, “Half of the cleaning personnel at Fletcher Allen are refugees.” Deborah knows – she was a patient there. She watched them mopping her hospital room floor, emptying the trash, and cleaning the toilet. 

 I walked out of Deborah’s home, wondering what would happen if we were patients in the hospital and, as Deborah encourages, were to “strike up a conversation” with, say, the Sudanese man sweeping the floor? “Do you enjoy working here?” we might say. And, “What is it like for you living in Vermont?” What would we learn if we bumped into a Muslim woman on Church Street wearing a Hijab and asked her, “What does wearing that mean to you?  
What would make us feel safe and accepted if we lived in a foreign country? 
A soft breeze stirred the thick air – the weather pattern had been predicted to change, for the better.

Learn more about how you can help refugees who have settled in Vermont: To donate: volunteer:

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Correspondent