Libby Marcus taught English to refugees while attending University
by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
When considering where to pursue her college education, Libby Marcus specifically chose Luther College in Decorah, Iowa because of its strong history with study abroad programs.
“They’ve had their Malta program for about 20 years,” Marcus said. “Maltese students had been attending Luther for a long time before that.”
Prior to the start of classes in August 2012, Marcus had participated in a North Shore immersion backpacking trip for freshmen. One of the leaders had recently returned from Malta and became a good friend of Marcus’.
“She helped me apply for the program, and I knew more of what to expect,” said Marcus.
After only one semester at Luther, Marcus (a music education major) was on her way to Malta in January with a group of nine students and one professor. The students were registered at the University of Malta, taking three courses that were a mandatory part of the program.
“We had ‘History of Malta,’ ‘Mediterranean ethics,’ and a service learning project,” she said. “We could choose one other class, and I picked ‘Introduction to Semiotics of Music.’”
Topics discussed in the music class included the psychology of music, music in society and how music is used at different age levels.
While attending a performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” at the historic cathedral in Mdina, Marcus realized she could use that composition for her final paper topic.
“There was only one Maltese student and me in the class, so we had a lot of one-on-one time with the professor,” said Marcus. “He had studied music in Libya and was an ethno-musicologist. I learned so much —it was a lot of fun.”
The “Requiem” performance in the packed church stopped abruptly for a minute or two during the third movement and Marcus later learned that Pope Francis had just been elected and a fireworks celebration had begun.
Maltese and English are the official languages of Malta. Maltese is a lot like Italian with an Arabic influence.
Refugees from African countries seeking asylum in Europe often end up in Malta on their way to Sicily.
“European law dictates that wherever the boat lands, they have to stay,” Marcus said. “They are mostly from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.”
There have been more than 16,000 migrants in the last decade to Malta — a county one-tenth the size of Rhode Island (having a population of 1.05 million) with a population of 400,000.
“They apply for refugee status, and the men are put in a detention center in isolation for months,” said Marcus. “The women and children are in open centers.”
The college and the Red Cross had recently made changes that made it more difficult to visit the refugees as part of Marcus’ service learning project. It wasn’t possible to visit until May.
The refugees were split into three groups for English lessons. Two interns from the Red Cross, Marcus and other students worked with the refugees twice a week throughout May.
“One man could only say ‘hello,’” she said. “We worked on simple introductions first. They used a picture English dictionary. Sometimes a more advanced learned came into the class to interpret.”
Marcus was told by one of the refugees, “Once you know English, you can do anything.”
“They were so respectful, so attentive and so interested in learning English,” Marcus said. “They always wanted to learn more.”
“We also worked with an organization called ‘Third World,’ helping underprivileged Maltese children,” she said. “We would play games and do drama activities with them. It got them moving and gave them confidence. They can speak English, but it was uncomfortable for them to do so.”
Marcus found working with the children both a joy and a challenge.
“It was sad walking them home,” she said. “It was evident they didn’t have much. They really enjoyed having us come.”
During her time in Europe, Marcus travelled as part of her student group to Rome, Morocco and Turkey. She travelled independently to northern Italy and Greece.
“I most enjoyed Istanbul,” she said. “It was beautiful. The Blue Mosque is so grand.”
During her time in Morocco, the group visited Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara Desert.
“We rode camels and camped overnight in the desert. It was surreal,” said Marcus. “That night we climbed up a sand dune and looked at the vista, surrounded by stars. It was a very special experience, getting away from it all.”
The next morning, Marcus again climbed a sand dune, this time to watch the sun rise.
The group returned to the United States in June. Marcus believes that anytime a person studies abroad and travels in foreign countries it makes them more independent.
“Volunteering with the men opened my eyes to how people are living there,” she said. “It made me appreciate everything I have, especially the education I am receiving — the opportunities we have here. I have learned to be much more grateful.”
Marcus hopes to go abroad again and do more travelling, with “so much to see and experience in the world.”