Malaysia has not signed the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (one of the few countries in the world that has not), so refugees in this country are by Malaysia’s definition of the word, illegal. This means that they cannot officially work and they cannot attend school. There are refugees in this country, however. Some come from Burma, thinking that their Muslim faith will earn them some consideration in this largely Muslim country. Some come from as far away as Somalia, for the same reason. They eke out an existence in the corners of Kuala Lumpur, trying to avoid notice and trying to get both an education and a job until they can find a country that will accept them and give them status.

The Canadian teachers in our program have undertaken to help them out where we can. We collect computers and school equipment for them, and cash donations every once in awhile. And we transport eight or nine students over to the school three days a week to help out with the teaching. This week was my turn to accompany the kids and provide some teaching for the adults in the school.

There were thirty-five to forty adults packed into the ‘classroom’ with nothing but a fan and a small opening for a window to break the stifling heat. I taught syllabic structure, an important component for ESL learners, although I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing so. Instead I told them that I was teaching them Haiku. Haiku is a very structured form of poetry that depends upon an understanding of syllabic structure to succeed. You don’t always tell your students the real purpose of the lesson. A little ‘smoke and mirrors’ helps the show to work.

I taught them other forms of poetic structure as well, just to get them used to the idea. I taught them iambic and trochaic forms in William Blake’s ‘London’ so that I could give them the message that it was the duty of writers to criticize the organizations that rule them if they were acting in an unconscionable manner. I taught them ‘Lochinvar’ so they could clap out the galloping rhythm of anapaestic metre and hear the message that arranged marriages should be trumped by love. Yes, this is clearly a little subversive of me. But thinking is, by its very nature, a subversive activity. We do a lot of that in English.

I also taught them ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ to teach them spondaic and dactylic rhythms and to let them have a little fun in singing a round. But mostly the kids and I taught them that in a caring society refugees should be treated like people. They should not be forgotten and isolated, hidden away from society’s view and care. We hope that message gets through to the students in our program as well. Who are the refugees where you live?