Master Teaching

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Education Confronts Injustice

Jen Uby Jen Underwood

Mr. Z farmed in his home country. He knew the soil and seasons intimately. He understood how to plow a living out of the earth. His knowing was deep. It fit his life. It was enough.

But his life is different now. He has been uprooted from his native soil and transplanted in a place drastically unlike his home. This new place is a suburb outside Chicago. It is filled with concrete and brick, technology and machines. It is fast and loud, and everything in it is unfamiliar.

All Mr. Z’s old knowledge is disregarded here. There is no place for it to settle or be used.

But this is only part of his problem.

This land has a different language, and its sounds are ones he has never before had to make. His tongue feels thick and awkward. His lips do not know how to move.

And then his hands and eyes, too, are asked to do new things: hold a pencil; form lines and curves; see shapes on a page and identify their meanings.

These last requirements seem particularly cruel, for he is pre-literate in his native language. He has no way to keep record of this new knowledge that has no connection to his past life. He must rely on his memory of the sounds alone, but how can memory hold onto what are nothing more than tones and grunts and harsh noise to him?

Mr. Z did not choose to leave his home country. He was forced to. This is true also of the other refugees who surround him in the World Relief ESL class he attends four days a week. In their homes, before they too had to leave, they had clear identities and places in their communities. Some, like Mr. Z, were farmers, and this new home of Chicago is a completely foreign world. For others, who come from more industrialized places, this new place doesn’t feel so strange.

But they don’t know how they fit into it. In their home countries, many of them owned their own businesses, had college degrees, worked as attorneys or mechanics or hairdressers. They had knowledge and skills that were needed and used, but these usually do not translate well to their new home, particularly if they are not fluent in English. Whether they are a pre-literate farmer or an attorney with a graduate degree, they are all disadvantaged through the simple lack of language.

World Relief seeks justice for refugees, and it sees education as an integral part of that justice. Yes, World Relief assists refugees with housing, job placement, transportation, and healthcare, and these are all necessary, but if refugees do not also have a way to learn the language and culture of their new home, they will remain outsiders, unable to shape their own identity within it. They will forever be at a disadvantage. Not only will their prior skills and knowledge never be put to use in their new home, they will also remain unable to acquire new skills and new knowledge.

This is an injustice.

And education confronts it.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • What do you know about refugee programs in your area?
  • What does education as justice mean to you?

Post Author

Jen Underwood, headshotJen Underwood lives with her husband, their four kids (two girls, two boys), two international high-school students (both girls), and a dog in the western suburbs of Chicago. She works as a writer/editor, serves as a ministry leader and teacher at her church, and is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. She blogs at

One comment on “Education Confronts Injustice

  1. Pingback: Hopes and Dreams | Master Teaching

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This entry was posted on July 6, 2016 by in blessing the ignored and forgotten, education as justice, Jen Underwood.



Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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