The Unifying Power of Literacy

This post will take a bit to get around to the literacy part; hang in there. First I want to provide a little context.

For the past year or so, my husband and I have been involved through our church with a non-profit organization, the International Institute of New England, that works closely with the US government to resettle incoming refugees from over 60 different countries, including Burma, Bosnia, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and many others. The Institute meets incoming refugee families and individuals as they arrive in the States after years of trauma, violence, and constant danger. As these newly arrived refugees struggle to find their places in a foreign nation, having left everything familiar behind them, the Institute works alongside them to find employment, skills training, housing, citizenship programs, and English language education. The Institute staff and volunteers ensure that these vulnerable people get what they need to become productive and integrated members of society. You can read more about the Institute’s history of work with the refugee community here, but, in my experience, this organization has floored me with their respect for human suffering, dignity, and resilience. Being able to participate in their work over the past year has been a true privilege that has both humbled and challenged me as an educator and as a human.

With this information in mind, I want to dedicate this post to our most recent event with the Institute. This event is the kind of thing I am very excited to blog about because it speaks to the incredible power that literacy and education have to unite, strengthen, and heal. A few weeks ago, several leaders in the Manchester school system worked with the Institute staff and our church to put on a Literacy Night for the k-12 students who had come to the States as refugees and had accomplished incredible scholarly work in the English language, which, for most of them, was an entirely new language! Families, teachers, community members, local government officials, and Institute staff were all invited. And when a group of people come together to celebrate kids’ reading and writing, it is my firm belief that deeply good things happen.

We had almost 200 members of the community in attendance, including around 45 different refugee families, a representative from Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s office, the Superintendent of Manchester schools, and the district head of Institute offices. These

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Reading essays!

families were able to enjoy a hot meal and see their kids perform songs, recite poems, and read speeches that they had recently completed as part of their academic work in the Manchester school systems. There were crafts to occupy the younger brothers and sisters who were struggling to sit still for the whole performance. We had an incredible bevy of donated books for all age groups for the kids to sort through and take home. Most of the refugee families in attendance had only been in the U.S. for less than a year, so this was a great chance for them to see and to celebrate their kids’ work along with the larger Manchester community.

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Donated books for the kids to take home.

Essentially 200 people came together from dramatically different walks of life to celebrate and support these young kids who are working so very hard to learn to read and write in a whole new language. Many of the poems were about homelands left behind, the experience of becoming an American, and hope in the face of trauma. Many of the adults in the audience who were clapping and cheering these kids on would have little else in common if it were not for these brave young people determinedly persisting in their academic careers and in telling their stories using the words available to them. So much of this multicultural community and joy stemmed from the simple fact that, no matter what had happened or was happening, these kids continued to learn and these adults continue to support them in that. It was an incredible testament to the role of literacy and education in the human experience.

The evening was, as many events including this number of people speaking this many different languages are, pandemonium. But what a beautiful, warm, and celebratory pandemonium it was! What a profound look at the empowerment and unity that is created when people come together to support students reading, writing, and sharing their work. What a privilege to be a part of.

 

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