By: Kate Jayroe
Photo by: Irena Popova Photography
Deni Kidd teaches English as a second language to international refugees. She teaches class twice a week at Light Mission Pentecostal Church in the Lonsdale neighborhood. She prepares these men and women, from diverse nations and ages, many victims of trauma, for citizenship tests. A mother of five herself, nurturing and communicating are simply a part of her life. Humble and personable, Deni exudes a calming and welcoming energy. She feels she learns more than she instructs, while in this safe and sacred place. In addition to having a conversation with Deni, I was able to attend one of her classes. In Light Mission Church’s sanctuary there is a festive atmosphere. The students were kind, quick to learn and to laugh, and so incredibly appreciative. Deni brings her students juice and coffee, knowing that many pupils walk to class. Deni taught a lesson of vocabulary, numbers, and phrases and monetary skills found in many jobs.
How big is the refugee population in Knoxville?
It’s huge. People have no idea. They don’t even know. I teach right in the heart of Lonsdale. We have a huge Burundi, Ugandan, and Rwandan refugee population here. Many only have the clothes they are wearing, no possessions. Many women arrive with only a passport in their bra. And we’ve been helping many more Ukrainian refugees with the recent conflicts in their home nation. My husband and I helped in three orphanages there. It definitely gives me a global perspective. It gives me compassion to know each refugee’s story. So, I teach English to them, and I love that. I just love it. In five lessons, I have a student, who didn’t know “hello,” [now] having a conversation with me.
So, by the fourth or fifth class you’re noticing a big difference?
Oh, yes! The students begin to understand my personality, begin to know that I really care, and they just start waking up. It takes a while to build trust, but by the fifth or sixth lesson they start to tell me some things about their past. One student has her baby swaddled on her back with a Kanga (a traditional African garment). She’s from Kenya. It’s so fascinating to learn their culture as our communications evolve. It’s interesting to see how they change, too. Teaching the word “dancing” was so great. To teach an adult how to speak, or read, is different than teaching a child. There are already associations that are set in place. One woman popped right up and just started dancing. She just smiles so big now. I imagine it is therapeutic for these refugees, too. Yes, and for me! (laughs) I get told, “thank you” so much. It’s really lovely, and it’s heartfelt. It was so solemn when I started, but now I have to bring it in a bit because there is so much laughter, which, in many ways, really is like medicine. I think many of them are just excited to know someone who cares.
Are these predominantly women refugees, and if so, are they often overburdened mothers?
Yes. Right now, I have one man in my class, but I have twelve women. I love how the women start to really come out of their shells. It helps relieve the pressure put on them as women. I love that they can have fun in my class. We do have volunteers for childcare, during the lessons. There are babies, toddlers, from all over the world. When we learn numbers one through ten, I ask, “How many children do you have?” Typically: Eight, nine, and many have lost one, often to war-related causes. Two of my students told me they still had children in Africa. One is missing four children, the other [is missing] two. [They] are praying and wanting to be reunited with their lost children. Please, if you run into a refugee, be slow to judge and open your arms wide. They have been in a battle most of us would not survive.
Tell me about the Ukrainian refugees.
I once had the opportunity to reconnect a woman from Moldova with her mother. I got to be a part of that. We picked her up and she stayed at my house for a month, to visit her daughter. They call me “the fighter” in Russian, because I advocate for them. The Burundi call me “the teacher,” but to the Russians, I’m “the fighter.” Several years ago, when I first started working with Ukrainian refugees, I had them all to my house for dinner. A Ukrainian student of mine, who allowed me to use her story of being sex trafficked in Moldova, to spread awareness, she said: “No one really cares about the Ukraine population here. We are isolated.” So, I invited them all to dinner and we ended up having forty people! They all brought the most delicious food. We had food for days after. About half of them couldn’t speak English, but there was conversation the whole time. Everyone stayed until really late in the night. They were so thrilled that an American invited them to dinner. Some of them have been here for ten or fifteen years and no one has tried to get to know them.
Well, I think sitting down at a meal is a really easy and sort of an instant way to transcend cultural boundaries.
Absolutely. And eating different foods that you aren’t used to. There were traditional Russian dishes, my husband smokes a turkey, and I have a son who’s a chef making sushi! (laughs) I’m this great cake maker. I love it. It’s a lot of work to have so many people in your home. We just drag furniture from wherever in the house we can find it. Even though everyone can’t understand each other’s languages, there’s so much conversation happening. It’s incredible.
It’s a really powerful thing you’re doing, that takes a lot of compassion.
I don’t think just anyone would do this. Certainly. I’m glad God made me passionate. I tend to focus on the positive, through my own individual efforts. If you can’t communicate, you can’t even tell a doctor what is wrong with you. You can’t really shop for the food you like, [and] you can’t get a job. Language is a currency for advancement.