There Is No Easy Walk to Freedom: Inside Work with Refugee Students

By Abby Harris-Ridker

“There is no easy walk to freedom…” – Nelson Mandela.

I started our book group with this quote at Sullivan High School, where I work with a group of English Language Learners from all over the world.

“What is freedom?” I asked.

One student responded, “Freedom is when you’re free.”

“Yes,” I said, “But what does it mean to be free? How do you know if you’re free?”

Some students shared that in school they don’t feel free because they have to follow rules. We then talked about why there are certain rules in place; how school rules might keep them safe and encourage everyone to come to school on time and work as hard as they can. And that even though they have to follow rules and don’t have complete freedom, they still have choices in how they perform and the goals they work towards.

At this point, another student commented, “Sometimes you have to fight for your freedom.”

He launched into a description of war in his home country, Syria, and how the government controls freedom; sometimes you have to fight, and sometimes you have to leave. He shared that for his safety and his family’s safety, he had to move here. Other students agreed and recognized new meaning in the word freedom. They shared similar reflections from their own home countries: Afghanistan, Congo, and Rwanda. It was beautiful to see these students come together and see new similarities and connections, and how words can bring them together.

The students began to explore how freedom might look different in different situations and why it is important to dream and work towards a better future. We read poems from Tupac’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete and explored what our dreams are for tomorrow and beyond.

by Abby Harris-Ridker