As an English teacher, you’re constantly put into situations where you need to improvise and adapt. No matter how much you prepare for your lessons, you’ll realize quickly that you just have to use what you have (which, in my case, isn’t much) and go with the flow. The first day I ever attempted to teach (what we now call) “Rohinglish Class,” I was at a loss of what to do. With 22 wide-eyed, smiling children staring at me in a circle, I quickly had to think of a way to engage these kids. I picked up my ukulele, played the only 3 chords I know, and it magically worked out to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Perfect! This song is simple, catchy, and the kids can learn it quickly! As soon as I started singing it, the kids picked it up. They started clapping, jumping, dancing, and singing. When I explained to them what “don’t worry, be happy” means, I knew they understood. They began to use it in everyday scenarios.
Music creates a powerful connection between people; I didn’t know just how powerful until I met these Rohingya kids. Not a single day has gone by without having a student sing, “don’t worry, be happy” to me. If I’m looking stressed, “Teacher, don’t worry. Be happy!” If their friend is crying, “Hey, don’t worry. Be happy!” Even when nothing is wrong, “I am fine! Don’t worry, be happy!”
When I enter the shelter with my ukulele, the kids immediately chase my motorbike and pick up broken pieces of wood to imitate a ukulele, singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” They don’t even let me get off my motorbike before they erupt into chorus.
I was even lucky enough to find a shirt at a local market that says “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” When I wore it to the shelter, the kids screamed and yelled, “Oh Teacher! Shirt amazing! Don’t worry! Be happy!”
When I took a couple volunteers to the shelter to teach the women and children, we circled up and started things off by singing “our favorite song” (you can guess what song that is). One of the volunteers came up to me afterwards and told me that watching the refugees sing that song was so powerful. These women and children are so resilient. They’re singing about not worrying and being happy when they have lost everything. They have been separated from their siblings, parents, and loved ones. They were promised to meet their family members in Malaysia, but ended up in Thailand, unable to make it there. They were exiled from their own country and forbidden to go to school or receive any basic medical assistance. In fact, some leaders of their country have even been bold enough to say that the “Rohingya don’t exist” (ABC).
Can you imagine being told that you and your people don’t even exist?
They have absolutely nothing. And yet they sing as though they have everything. When I sing with them, I feel like I have everything. In those moments, I’m perfectly content. I never worry. I’m happy.
I don’t teach them English during my free time because I feel sorry for them…I teach them English because I see incredible potential in them. These people have overcome obstacles that I can barely imagine. They are learning English so quickly and are aching to learn more. When I’m with them, I feel their love and support. Every day I look forward to pulling up to the shelter on my motorbike and watching the children chase me and the women wave at me, yelling, “Hello, Teacher!”
It’s difficult to put into words just how much of an impact these people have made on me. When I initially entered the shelter, I saw so much pain, hopelessness, and loss. Now when I enter the shelter, I see glimpses of joy, motivation, and hope. They finally have found their hope; their “don’t worry, be happy” niche. Watching these people change has changed me. When I’m sitting at the shelter, I never feel lonely. The women enjoy dressing me like a Rohingya woman and teasing my “Rohinglish” accent (as I attempt to learn their language). The kids enjoy being kids around me, getting into all sorts of trouble and making me laugh until I cry.
They’ve taught me so many things, but most of all, they’ve taught me the true meaning of “don’t worry, be happy.” The thought of leaving them tears me apart. I can’t imagine my life without them. I know we won’t be together forever, but it breaks my heart that I have to be the one to leave.
Since I’ve moved a fair amount of times during my childhood, I’m one who is pretty familiar with goodbyes. I try to close myself off emotionally from most of my friends. I’m pretty good at becoming close with people, but not close enough where leaving them would break me apart. I don’t like to open myself up to people. Being vulnerable is not my forte.
This is the first time I have ever felt true, raw emotion. I don’t know what it is about them, but something powerful has struck me, making it seem nearly impossible to leave. I have opened myself up to them, more than I have ever opened up before. Even though we barely speak the same language, I feel closer to these kids than anyone else I’ve ever met.
With just 22 more days left in Khao Lak (yes, the Rohingya kids have been keeping a countdown calendar for my departure date. That makes it so much worse to leave), I’m still trying to accept the fact that this chapter in my life is coming to an end.
Of course, my work with Rohingya refugees has not come to an end; in fact, let’s hope this is just the beginning. I may or may not see these people again. They are supposed to resettle in America, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. Whether I see them again or not, I am grateful to have spent time with them.
How lucky I am to listen to a song like, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and think back on such a powerful time in my life; the time when my life was changed. I think this song played a huge part in that experience.