ISSN 1710-6931 February 24, 2012 Issue 169

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Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Words are a powerful tool to open up doors for new experiences. For many non-refugee students, seeing the world of refugee students through a first-hand account is a rare and profound experience that will impact them for life.

Building on a goal to build bridges between these two worlds, RESPECT's pen pal exchange program has been facilitating letter exchanges between refugee and non-refugee students for years.

Bridgette McGoldrick, a history teacher in the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, Washington USA, recognizes this and is embarking on a journey to engage her students in a precious lesson.

While teaching her 9th grade course titled Global Studies: An exploration of political and ecological issues from past to present, one of the topics Bridgette and her students touched upon was the subject of human migration, refugees, internally displaced person and immigration policies.

To give her students a more intimate understanding of migration issues, Bridgette showed her class an excerpt from the movie about the Lost Boys of Sudan. Bridgette's students, 14 to1 5 year-old girls from around the world, including America, China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, were deeply interested by the subject and asked her many questions.

Prompted by her students' intense interest in this subject, Bridgette came upon RESPECT when she was researching online to find possibilities that would connect her students with people of their own age but with a different set of life experiences, to whom they could write, learn from and share their own life experiences with.

Bridgette immediately recognized that RESPECT was the organization she was looking for. After getting in contact with the organization and being directed to a program in Liberia, she set out to build connections between her students and the refugee students there through the RESPECT pen pal program.

When she told her students about this program, they were equally excited, expressing hopes that they "could be [the refugee students'] friends, understand their hardships and [learn] about their life if they wanted".

Under Bridgette's guidance, the students wrote introductory letters to their prospective pen pals. Bridgette sent off the first batch of letters in November 2011 and recently received responses from the Liberian refugee students.

Letters from Monrovia, and other cities such as Zuedru City in the Grand Dedeh County in Liberia reached the students in Washington and they were absolutely delighted. The refugee students range in age from 13 to 17, many of whom are enjoying aspects of school such as science.

One pen pal wrote: "I like to study plants and soil and other living things." Other students shared more private information. One Liberian refugee student wrote that he lost his mother when he was 10, but feels joyful that someone is taking care of him now.

The letter exchanges have offered Bridgette's student a peek into the up-and-downs of a refugee student's life. While being intrigued by the differences in life experience, the students are sometimes amazed by how similar on some levels they actually are with their new pen pals. For example, Janice Fang (a 9th grade student from Taiwan) told Bridgette: "She loves playing basketball just like me."

Through the cultivation of friendship by writing letters, the students become more aware of the global refugee issues and the importance of tolerance and understanding. "They are questioning about life in Liberia, about young adults who are refugees and I think they do, truly, better understand what it means to be part of a global community as they connect, with a new friend," says Bridgette.

With the hope to extend more substantial help to the students in Liberia, Bridgette and her students are brainstorming ideas to support, connect and build deeper relationship with their pen pals. One of the ideas was to carry out fundraising events to help their Liberian friends in more concrete ways.

The letter exchange program has impacted Bridgette in more than one way, and she has high hopes for her students as well. "I hope for my students to connect with a new friend. I hope they are open to listening, learning and sharing with their pen pal about some of the complexities in Liberian politics, life as refugee or the hardships of living in a war-torn country. At the same time, I want my students to realize that there is laughter there too and that they are similar, in some ways, to these students with whom they exchange letters, as they have already begun to see," she says.

Through the RESPECT letter exchange program, Bridgette and her students were able to see the world through the eyes of the Liberian refugee students. This has been both an exciting and humbling experience for the teacher and students. Bridgette intends to keep this exchange going for as long as possible, and believes that the lesson that this experience will teach her students is more than anything that could be learned from text books.

"I want my students to realize that what we study in the classroom is more than just a concept. I want them to understand that the issues we discuss and study have a very personal element to them. I want them to be more connected, on the very personal level, to the idea that we are a global community and interconnected in a very intimate way through the building of these new friendships and letter exchanges," she adds.

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