I am a Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got!


Come into my classroom any day of the week and you’ll see refugees.

That little Iraqi boy slumped over a book written in Arabic while the rest of the class reads the same story in English. Those twin girls blinking back memories of the Bosnian War as they try to underline possessive nouns on an English worksheet. That brown-skinned boy compulsively rocking back-and-forth in his seat fighting back tears wondering when his dad is going to come home from prison.

Every day, every hour, every minute our public schools are places of refuge for children seeking asylum, fugitives, emigres, exiles, the lost, the displaced, dear hearts seeking a kind word and a caring glance.

Some may shudder or sneer at the prospect of giving shelter to people in need, but that is the reality in our public schools. In the lives of many, many children we provide the only stability, the only safety, the only love they get all day.

And, yes, I do mean love. I love my students. Each and every one of them. Sometimes they are far from lovable. Sometimes they look at me with distrust. They bristle at assignments. They jump when redirected. But those are the ones I try to love the most, because they are the ones most in need.

I told a friend once that I had a student who had escaped from Iraq. His parents had collaborated with the U.S. military and received death threats for their efforts. So he and his family fled to my hometown so far away from his humid desert heartland.

I told her how difficult it was trying to communicate with a student who spoke hardly any English. I complained about budget cuts that made it next to impossible to get an English Language Learner (ELL) instructor to help me more than once a week. And her response was, “Do you feel safe teaching this kid?”

Do I feel safe? The question had never occurred to me. Why wouldn’t I feel safe? I don’t expect ISIS to track him down across the Atlantic Ocean to my class. Nor do I expect this sweet little guy is going to do anything to me except practice his English.

In one of my first classrooms, I had a dozen refugees from Yugoslavia. They had escaped from Slobadan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing. Yet you’d never know unless they told you. They were some of the most well-behaved, thoughtful, intelligent children I’ve had the pleasure to teach. They were always smiling, so happy to be here. They approached every assignment with a seriousness well beyond their years.

But sometimes you’d see a shadow cross their faces. Rarely you’d hear them whispering among themselves. I was so new I didn’t know any better but to come down on them. But later they told me what they had been talking about, what they had been thinking about – how Henry V’s military campaign brought back memories. They taught me that day. Every year I learn so much from my children.

My high poverty school doesn’t get a lot of refugees from overseas these days. But we’re overwhelmed with exiles from our own neighborhood. I can’t tell you how many children I’ve had in class who start off the year at one house and then move to another. I can’t tell you how many come to school bruised and beaten. I can’t tell you how many ask a moment of my time between classes, during my planning period or after school just to talk.

Last week one of my students walked up to me and said, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

Class had just been dismissed. I had a desk filled to the ceiling with ungraded essays. I still had to make copies for tomorrow’s parent-teacher conferences. I had gotten to none of it earlier because I had to cover another class during my planning period. But I pushed all of that aside and talked with my student for over an hour.

And I’m not alone. On those few days I get to leave close to on time, I see other teachers doing just like me conferencing and tutoring kids after school.

It was a hard conversation. I had to show him he was worth something. I had to make him feel that he was important to other people, that people cared about him. I hope I was successful. He left with a handshake and a smile.

He may not be from far away climes, but he’s a refugee, too. He’s seeking a safe place, a willing ear, a kind word.

So you’ll forgive me if I sigh impatiently when some in the media and in the government complain about the United States accepting more refugees. What a bunch of cowards!

They act as if it’s a burden. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a privilege.

When I see that iconic picture of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi drowned in Turkey as his family tried to escape the conflict, I find it impossible that anyone could actually refuse these people help. Just imagine! There are a host of others just like this family seeking asylum and we can give it! We have a chance to raise them up, to provide them a place to live, to shelter them from the storm. What an honor! What a privilege! What a chance to be a beacon of light on a day of dark skies!

I’m an American middle class white male. My life hasn’t been trouble free, but I know that I’ve won the lottery of circumstances. Through none of my own doing, I sit atop the social ladder. It is my responsibility to offer a helping hand in every way I can to those on the lower rungs. It is my joy to be able to do it.

It’s what I do everyday at school. When I trudge to my car in the evening dark, I’m exhausted to the marrow of my bones. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s not uncommon for a student or two to see me on the way to my car, shout out my name with glee and give me an impromptu hug. At the end of the day, I know I’ve made a difference. I love being a teacher.

So if we’re considering letting in more refugees, don’t worry about me. Send them all my way. I’ll take all you’ve got. That’s what public schools do.

NOTE: This article also was published in Everyday Feminism, the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also quoted extensively in an interview the National Education Association did with the author.


53 thoughts on “I am a Public School Teacher. Give Me All the Refugees You’ve Got!

  1. Yes! Now, how do we get Bill Gates and the other psycho oligarchs to pay attention? Oh, wait a minute, we don’t because by their actions, they are all psychos and they don’t care about the children—-but the public school teachers do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steven Singer–I love you! It is as though you have crept into this kindergarten teacher’s weary mind and expressed my exact sentiments! Most of all, you have not forgotten the children born right here in the USA who may go through their own private wars every day. My kinders don’t always ask for my guidance and they can’t stay after school, so their daily shenanigans and outbursts of joy, injustice, pain, anger and accomplishment make our classroom a very busy place. 17 out of my 19 kiddos come from Burma, Nepal, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

    I teach in a Receivership school in Buffalo, NY where there are over 40% English as a New Language learners who are beholden to the same standards and testing as the native speakers! I am fortunate to have an ENL teacher push-in for an hour each morning and pull-out the Entering and Emerging students for intensive instruction each afternoon. Talk about differentiation! I, too, say let them come–the children are welcome in my room. But I also ask that they be treated like children who are still developing and becoming. They are not mere data points staring blindly back at those who judge and criticize them for not measuring up! Put yourself in their shoes and then put yourself in mine, even if it is only for ONE day.

    Childhood should be a journey, not a race! (source unknown)


  3. The irony is: We, the People, of the United States of America, are a nation of immigrants. We come together under one banner, united, to become all we are and can be, to our full potential, and build up our nation and one another. Somehow, Corporate America has forgotten this, they are the “exception.” The America of today has been takeover by a Corporate America more interested in taking for itself instead of sharing the wealth built and earned together with others.


  4. I get the desire to show compassion for innocent children. I do. But how you can say that taking in these refugees is not a burden? Economically, financially, it’s a HUGE burden on our society and resources. Is there a risk of letting terrorists in? Absolutely! As much as we hate to think about it, women and children are being trained to commit acts of terrorism and have done so. What is being asked for is simply to stop taking them in blindly. Wait until we have some better method of qualifying who’s coming in. Sorry, but you need to keep you emotions in check and make rational decisions about the impact of doing this.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Steve – your response is rightly channeling Martin Luther King Jr’s comment on the parable of the good Samaritan –

        “And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’
        “But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” (3 April 1968. I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. Memphis, TN).

        Your work, commitment and attitude is precisely what challenges the narrative behind terrorism. Those who complain about the costs of immigrants, never factor in how much more we spend in the policies and practices that help fuel terrorism.

        thank you!


    • Barb, what you say is very realistic, and the points you make cannot be overlooked! I would overload my classroom to the point that it becomes unmanageable, with supplies and learning materials limited or nonexistant, to save the lives of refugee children. They must be saved! But as long as it is possible for radical terrorists to infiltrate America with the refugees (and it surely is), another option must be found. The safety of America and its people must be our first priority. I have compassion, and am looking for a better solution. That’s what public school teachers do.


      • “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
        -Desmond Tutu

        Liked by 2 people

    • Barb, Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee. It seems we have a lot more to bring in before the net would be a burden. In all seriousness though, refugees are generally very hard working, productive citizens that are very appreciative of their new countries.
      And, as Steve points out, there is a very extensive, 2-year vetting process. 3 people out of the 784,000 refugees we have admitted since 9/11 were arrested for activities related to terrorism. Obviously, that’s 3 more than we want, but do we turn our backs on the people who need us the most because there’s a .000004 chance of a problem? Good article at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/can-terrorists-really-infiltrate-the-syrian-refugee-program/416475/.


    • The problem is, barb, that it isn’t a huge burden on our society and resources. The number that will be allowed in is extraordinarily small, increasing our population by 0.003% (and most of those are adults anyway). That means on average, a classroom of 25 would now be . . . a classroom of 25. To even reach the point the migrants would make an impact, you’d have to consider 53 classrooms of 25, at which point one new student would be added to all the others. Economically, the expense of refugee settlement isn’t even a drop in the bucket in our budgets, costs wouldn’t even account for a 1 cent increase in taxes per american to cover it. It is insignificant.

      Additionally, the “risk” of letting terrorists in is 100% unfounded. None of the French attackers had refugee status. All refugees we take in are heavily vetted and none of the 750,000 we’ve handled so far have been, so to think 10,000 more would be any different is baseless. Why you would demand “a better method to qualify who’s coming in” when the existing method has been shown to be working perfectly, I cannot understand.

      So overall the actual facts of the situation disagree with every argument you’ve put forward, then you have the audacity to end with “Sorry, you need to keep your emotions in check”?! You are the one abandoning rational thought and ignoring the facts to present your own fearful and emotional snap response. Take the time to research what I’ve said here and realize how embarrassingly hypocritical you are being.


  5. “The New Colossus”

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

    “Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

    I lift my lamp beside the golden [schoolhouse] door!

    When and why did we become such a mean-minded, fearful nation that we have forgotten Emma Lazarus’ words?


  6. I have taught children who are refugees or left their home country due to violence and government instability. Many are from central America, north Africa or the Middle East. My students are wonderful people.


  7. I like your idealism but I don’t agree. Europe should take care of European refugees like in Bosnia or now maybe Ukraine. Arab or African refugeesshould also find shelter in their own region. Our continent is simply too small to host everyone. That being said, I completely get why people run fromthe nr 1 on our modern supervillains list: http://lordsofthedrinks.com/2015/02/25/7-modern-supervillains-the-biggest-enemies-of-the-intoxicated-world/


  8. Just wondering…..why can’t we send our great teachers to heal, educate and rebuild these precious children on their own homeland. Say, in a safe haven in Saudi Arabia or Turkey (since both countries have offered)? I love your enthusiasm and agree 100%, but nobody is addressing why moving them half way across the world and implanting them into a culture that is foreign is the only answer. I say, save them just across the border from where they are, so they can eventually return to their homeland and be a crucial part of it’s rebuilding….


    • I just came across this in Ireland. Steve I commend your sentiments and those like you. Internationally, the US has both earned and cultured an image over the past 100 years of caring for situations around the world in a proactive and responsive way. What concerns me greatly is an attitude that the whole refugee issue is a burden that only the US will have to encounter. I just wanted to throw some facts out there for those who might be tempted to actually research statistics outside of politicised and entertainment-based news that seems to be pervasive in the US. Europe IS dealing with the refugee crisis, it has been and will continue to do so with every country taking Syrian refugees in. In fact Ireland are taking in as many refugees as the US has pledged. We are talking about the biggest displacement of people since WW2. It is a crisis of epic proportions and everyone over here is doing their bit to help. If you want to talk about passing the buck over to others, let’s put it in perspective… Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have approximately 5 million refugees in just those three countries. Now consider the US commitment to a situation that, speaking frankly, it has perhaps assisted in initiating.


      • I think we should give the millions of refugees that have been caused by the Bush Wars one of the southern states and provide free land grants and homes scattered across the US for all the residents of that state. Their reward would be freedom from paying taxes for a decade or a generation.

        For instance, Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana?


  9. Not sure who the “brown-skinned” boy is, but since his father is in prison, let’s assume these are your codes for an African American males and his dad. Maybe you didn’t notice (and therefore don’t teach) that for centuries, countless millions of THEIR foreparents built the wealth and comforts of this nation on their backs and in return their offspring have been reduced to the tired huddled masses in U.S. prisons.

    Do not simplistically lump this child in with refugees. This AMERICAN child’s ancestors did not knock on the door asking for refuge. Quite the opposite. It is estimated that the bones of 13 million lay on the floor of the Atlantic–many of these persons took their own lives, rather than be reduced to chattel slavery.

    It’s nice that you have a heart, but teachers do enormous damage daily by failing to grasp even the most elementary ideas about the Black experience. Ten years ago, African Americans fleeing the flood that resulted from the failure of the flimsy levies were called “Katrina Refugees”. We asked you then and again now again to STOP comparing African Americans to refugees. Also STOP referring to us by our appearance. And actually, there ARE White prisoners, so STOP perpetuating heinous stereotypes. If you’re going to do us a favor, join the campaign to SHUT DOWN the school-to-prison pipeline.

    READ “The New Jim Crow” and JOIN AWARE–regardless of where you live: http://www.awarela.org


  10. You’ve brought me to tears. What a wonderful teacher, mentor, neighbor, friend, human you are. I’d like to reblog this next month. Please let me know if that would be all right.



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