My Summer as a HIAS Intern in Ecuador

Posted by Rebecca Wener on Wed, Sep 23, 2009 at 11:42 am

My summer as an intern with HIAS in Ecuador provoked many of the emotions that I learned were common to refugee work. It was often difficult, emotional, or simply unexpected or confusing, but also deeply, profoundly moving.

First, I spent much of my time working with children who had come with their parents to the HIAS offices. I quickly came to understand this was a regular need in the office, but was not always filled due to a lack of available staff. There were almost always children, because whole families would usually come straight to the HIAS offices as their first stop in Ecuador. Even for those who had been there longer, there was not always someone to leave the children with, while the adults went to HIAS.

Between what I was told and what I observed, the HIAS “Children’s Corner,” as it was dubbed, is unique. It served partly as an entertainment center. Especially with the youngest children, we colored, played with play-dough or duck-duck goose. But it was also an opportunity to work with children who may not yet have come to terms with the recent upheavals in their lives, and also to spot those who might be having more serious emotional problems. So we also read stories and did activities that were developed by HIAS staff members in order to help young children develop a positive outlook towards their new lives in Ecuador. Often, the most rewarding moments were when I kept the structured activities to a minimum and allowed the children the space and the materials to create their own games and conversations.

Perhaps the most rewarding work I did this summer turned out to be the English lessons that I taught to Colombian refugees who are currently waiting to be resettled in Canada and New Zealand. I only had three weeks left to teach, with classes three times a week. I was conflicted: what could I achieve in nine classes? Ultimately, I tried to provide them the kind of language tools that they could use in order to practice English on their own time, after the classes had finished. This meant giving them only rudimentary grammar but long lists of vocabulary that they then took home to study.

Predictably, they did not end up learning a lot of English during those three weeks. (I am rather optimistic that what they learned will stay with them.) It was during these nine sessions that I had the most regular opportunities to interact and converse with many of the refugees who utilized the services HIAS provides. I had the opportunity to talk and share a little of my background with them. They, in turn, shared a little bit of their background with me. Many times during a discussion of English pronunciation or grammar, the class would dissolve into fits of laughter over jokes, or over someone’s long story about an experience in Colombia, which inevitably had many regional references that would have to be explained to me.

I came into the last class, with the feeling that the experience had been enjoyable but not very productive. Yet the level of gratitude that they expressed to me on that last day left me overwhelmed. I had been careful to have reasonable and practical expectations about the kind of effect my work as a two-month intern would have. I had read the post-colonial critiques that warned against white liberal charity in the “third world” and I had been determined to treat the work in Ecuador like any standard company internship in the United States. But the people in my English classes were genuinely grateful about the effort I made and the connection I had formed with them. Many of these people had experienced the kind of hardships that made my own struggles seem petty. Yet, they always came to class ready to laugh and at the end of my time, they made an effort to show me that whatever the quality of the end product I had delivered to them, the effort I had put in was both noticed and felt.

In the end, I came away with the kinds of observations about human nature that seem banal until you really experience them. For example, that people really are as deeply interconnected as you learn when you’re young and that the gestures you make to them should always be careful and sincere because they will be felt more than you know.

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