The search for his life’s playlist led refugee survivor Mathias Siri across these words:
“If I could only find a note to make you understand . . .”
Like most of the students in Diane Mora’s East High School classroom in Kansas City, Mathias has a refugee’s story — from his family’s flight from war in Congo to hard years in a camp in Tanzania, then relief in a strange new world in America.
Others are migrant students, some facing uncertain futures, thousands of miles from family and friends they left behind.
“I’d sing it softly in your ear and grab you by the hand . . .”
The words, from the song “Stereo Hearts” by Gym Class Heroes, were one of several choices Mathias, 17, gathered when Mora challenged her class recently to find the emotions of their lives in the songs they love — and then write about it.
There were the technical aspects of the assignment for students determined to become strong English speakers — researching their music, formatting it into their story files, compiling academic-styled citations.
But this was about Mathias being able share his life with others, like how hard it was in the refugee camp and the hour-long round trip for water, balancing a wooden bucket on his head over and over, or cutting away at nyasi, the grass, to thatch their roofs.
Like other students here, Mathias said, “I want to improve my writing skill.” And, just as important, “I want to remember where I came from.”
Some of the music they chose came from American artists singing in English, like these words Rwandan refugee Kevin Muhoza played from rapper 21 Savage’s “A Lot”:
“How many problems you got? (A lot)
How many people done doubted you? (A lot)
Left you out to rot? (A lot)”
Kevin was looking for the songs that help him express “the bad life in Africa,” he said. And also how happy he is “to be in America.”
His family told of things he was too young to remember, how his grandmother had to hide him to save him from the violence that forced them to flee. But the violence found them again when he watched his older brother get shot in front of him and nearly die.
“Our kids have lives much bigger than can be contained in this classroom,” Mora said. “They are survivors of life situations we can’t imagine.”
Some of the students’ music choices gathered songs from their home culture and their home language. Almost all of them mixed their culture and American culture.
“I can see through their music how their identities are trying to develop,” Mora said. “It illustrates the journey they are on.”
“De muy chico deje mi casa para buscar en que triunfar . . . hoy soy la luz de mi familia.”
The words in a song that Mexican migrant student Guillermo Domingo chose came from Aldo Trujillo’s “Muchacho Fracasado.” Translated, they say:
“When I was very young I left my house to search for success . . . today I am the light of my family.”
Guillermo traveled to the U.S. in a hard journey by himself and lives with a foster family now. He hopes to be able to get to college and to work so he can help his mother. It meant he had to “leave old friendships,” he said. “But life is so hard for her there.”
One student after the other talked of how they want to gain language skills, find their place in America and work.
“Sometimes I cry,” go the words in one of Elizabeth Hassan’s chosen songs, “Slave,” by Lucky Dube. “I cry but my crying never helps me none.”
Hassan, a 16-year-old refugee from Tanzania, wants to continue in school, get stronger in speaking English, and study to become a medical assistant.
“It was so hard,” she said of her life before. “Because of war people died. It was hard to find money. Hard to work farming.”
The students see paths now that can take them forward, and Mora doesn’t want anyone holding her students back.
“They’re making me proud,” she said, “and they’re proud of themselves.”
Claude Ngabire, 18, from Burundi, wants to be an engineer.
Ashura Mwenitanda, 16, of Tanzania, wants to be a nurse.
One of Ashura’s chosen songs, “Dancing in the Sky” by the duo Dani and Lizzy was an anthem to loved ones who have died, but spoke back to a refugee’s dreams.
“Are your days filled with love and light? Is there music? Is there art and invention? Tell me are you happy?
Are you more alive?”
By Joe Robertson, LINC writer