As students in Lisa Monroe and Jodi VanDam’s fifth-grade class waited in the Central Elementary office to meet some special classroom guests, they couldn’t help but jump with excitement.
Mounahinde Almame, who goes by Terry, and Rohim Mohammed, both students at Wyoming High School and recent refugees, came to the United States without family and with limited use of the English language. Today, both speak English fluently and are more than happy to share their experiences with the West Michigan community — especially with a group of excited fifth-graders.
Literature and Real Life
Terry and Rohim’s visit came about after Monroe and VanDam, along with their students, read the book “Home of the Brave” by Katherine Applegate. The novel tells the story of a boy named Kek from Africa. When his mother goes missing, Kek has is sent to America. Touching on the challenges of moving to a new country, the book talks about many of the same experiences that Terry and Rohim went through.
Both Monroe and VanDam thought a real life connection would be powerful for their students to witness.
“It’s truly an honor to listen to Terry and Rohim and it’s an incredible thing for our students to experience,” Monroe said. “We’re so grateful.”
Terry, originally from the Central African Republic, and Rohim, from Myanmar, spoke to the class about their reasons for coming to the United States, their journey to get here and their first and current impressions.
Having to move around a lot throughout his lifetime, Terry, who first came to the states a year and seven months ago, learned five different languages in order to communicate with the people he was living with before coming to the U.S.
“It’s hard to make friends when you don’t know the language,” he said. “All you can say is ‘hi’ and things can’t go very far from there. That’s why I learned the languages.”
The language barrier was one of the hardest things for Terry when he first arrived, but soccer helped him to communicate in a way that didn’t require fluent language skills.
“You kind of speak the language of soccer when you’re playing,” he said. “You don’t need to speak the same language to talk with your team, you just get to work together.”
For Terry, the most important label in his life continues to be the word “refugee.”
“I’m not an immigrant and that’s very important to me,” he said. “I am a refugee. I didn’t want to leave my country, I had to leave.”
Rohim came to America alone in March 2017 as a refugee after leaving Myanmar because of war and violence.
Though he is extremely grateful for his opportunity to come here through Bethany Christian Services, he misses his family every day, he said.
“I wish that I could have brought my family with me, but things are hard when you come from a country of violence,” Rohim said. “It is what it is.”
English is the fourth language that Rohim speaks, including his home dialect of Rohingya and Thai, and he is excited to be studying English at Wyoming High School — even though it is difficult.
“English is a very hard language to learn because, in my language, we don’t have the same past tense,” Rohim said “We have the best teachers that really help us correct what we are saying so that we can learn.”
The West Michigan winter has also been an adjustment for Rohim.
“I had never seen snow before in my life,” he said. “It’s beautiful to see the snow, but it is also very, very, very cold.”
After the pair spoke and answered questions for an hour, Kenowa Hills students invited Terry and Rohim back to their classrooms to circulate, chat and answer any further questions that they had.
For one fifth-grader, a refugee himself, Terry and Rohim’s words of advice really struck home.
“It was really fun to meet other people from Africa and from around the world, not from America,” said the student, whose parents asked his name not be used. “It’s always fun to meet people from different countries and cool for me especially.”
Fifth-grader Ayla Brown said she felt very grateful after hearing Terry and Rohim speak.
“I am thankful for my family and friends because you never know what could happen,” Ayla said. “I love my family so much.”
Spreading the Word
Central Elementary’s library wasn’t the setting of Terry and Rahim’s first time as featured speakers.
A year ago, both of them shared their experiences at Wyoming High School as part of the Alpha Wolf Leadership gathering, titled “The Stories of Us.”
“Alpha leadership is a group of students who are committed to actively living out the alpha wolf values of kindness, compassion and graciousness,” said John Doyle, Wyoming High School social studies teacher. “Rohim and Mounahinde’s story was so powerful that is was shared by others outside of Wyoming High School.”
Making its way across districts, Rohim and Terry’s story is an important one for the younger generation to hear, Doyle said.
“Everyone has a story to tell, however, we don’t always get an opportunity to share it with others,” Doyle said. “Sometimes, our stories can have similarities with others, creating a friendship for life. We all should listen to other’s stories and welcome them.”
Though Doyle has not directly taught Terry or Rohim, he has interacted with them in after-school leadership activities and as part of the Wyoming community.
“What strikes me most about both is their willingness to interact with others, demonstrate sincere kindness and go out of their way to show compassion for others,” he said.
Near the end of the visit, Rohim was asked to talk about the three things he most values.
“Character is so important and this is what I have learned at my school,” he said. “Education is important for you to succeed and I am thankful for my teacher. The door for opportunity is not always opened but when it is you need to walk through it — you need to take that chance.”