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Finding their Voice: Using English to Educate Future Humanitarians

Bunker Hill Community College professor Andy Reyes—along with the American Red Cross—is giving students a voice. Quite literally.

As an English as a Second Language educator, his classroom is nothing short of a melting pot, with recent immigrants, refugees, even former child soldiers making up his student population. Some have started to assimilate to American culture; others still hold on fiercely to their native dress and customs. During their weekly classes, students strengthen their English language skills, but with a twist. Andy wants his students to come out of the15 week class more confident in their speaking abilities. But what he really wants is for them to be confident in their own voice. And that means speaking about subjects that in many of their home countries are taboo, such as human dignity, genocide and refugees.

Andy does this by incorporating elements of the American Red Cross “Exploring Humanitarian Law” curriculum into his discussions, and even the shyest of his students gradually find the subject matter too compelling to remain silent. After all, for many, this hits home. While back in their native countries many students may have considered others in the class as “the enemy,” here in Boston they are friends, sharing tables in the college cafeteria, continuing their discussions long after the bell has rung.

Andy’s classes allow students to not only speak frankly about critical issues, but also to learn more about each other, and themselves. Their tolerance improves with their English, and they begin to think more critically about the world around them.

This week educators like Andy are coming from around the country to Washington, D.C. as part of the American Red Cross Exploring Humanitarian Law Summer Institute for Educators. Over the course of four days, high school teachers and college educators will interact and engage with their peers, learn about challenging global humanitarian issues and discuss innovative ways to bring human dignity and a humanitarian perspective to the classroom. For many it will be the first time they really learn what “international humanitarian law” or the laws of war is all about.

The EHL curriculum aims to teach young people that even wars have limits, that there are laws protecting those who are most vulnerable, and that even in the most difficult of circumstances these laws try to alleviate suffering for victims of war and conflict. In addition, guest lecturers such as award-winning journalist and human rights activist Jimmie Briggs, former Chief Prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay Morris Davis and leading law of war expert Gary Solis are offering their unique, first hand perspectives.

“My students find their voice,” Andy says. “They may not have their voice the first day they walk into my class but throughout the 15 weeks they find their own comfort level, their issues of choice, and where they stand. When they leave the classroom they have a voice, and they have the power to question the things that are not right in their life. They think more. They become more global.”

For more information on Exploring Humanitarian Law or to find out about participating in a training near you, visit