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  • Writer's picturePippa

Freddy Mercury Taught Me English

While Limbo doesn’t focus only on the tragic side of being a refugee in limbo, the director, Ben Sherrock, provides enough hints throughout the film to remind viewers that refugees are always haunted by the distress of their memories. Omar, a Syrian, asks Fahad from Afghanistan if Fahad ever thinks about who he was. Fahad replies that he tries not to. Determined to make sense of his own mental turmoil, Omar keeps on, “Would you go back if you could?” Fahad speaks for most refugees when he says that he can’t. And right there is the essence of being a refugee, being forced from your country, forced to flee through unthinkable dangers towards temporary safe havens (camps, urban ghettos, isolated Scottish islands), forced to endure the uncertainty of an outcome for decisions made by far away powers-that-be.

Lighter moments are interspersed throughout the film and provide welcome comic relief from the gravity of the subject. When Fahad mentions that Freddy Mercury taught him English we’re reminded of that other English language learner in Fawlty Towers, Manuel, who learned his English from a “booooooook”. They both have spectacular moustaches too. The difference is that one can’t go back. Out shopping for some sumac so that he can make his mum’s babaganoush, Omar experiments with a newly acquired English term and is quickly reprimanded by the Sikh shopkeeper. In the obligatory ESL class, the teachers model appropriate culture-specific social behaviour which leaves the class as perplexed as the viewers.

In preparation for my upcoming teaching post in Athens I’ve been working at some online learning modules created by the British Council on teaching English to refugee and displaced learners. In them, I’ve read about how I can best support learners in a trauma-sensitive learning environment. Limbo made me aware of some other related considerations:

  • Always remember that your students are “in limbo”. They’re awaiting news that affects their whole future and that uncertainty could over-ride every other aspect of day-to-day life.

  • Don’t persist in your efforts to help if it is refused. Despite your good intentions, sometimes people don’t want your help. Know when to step back. Try again later.

  • Some students might happily recount the details of the life they once lived and others are reluctant. Be sensitive. English structures like “I used to + infinitive” to enable learners to talk about past situations that are no longer true may be inappropriate in your classroom.

  • If you discover that a student has a particular skill, be gentle if you ask them to showcase their talent. Omar was a rising musical talent in Syria and lugs his oud everywhere but when he’s asked to perform, his initial excuse is that “it doesn’t sound right”. And, of course he never expected to play an oud in the winter chill of an island somewhere off the northwest coast of Scotland.

  • Show curiosity about your students’ countries of origin. Share any experiences you might have or find out more on your own. One of the most touching moments in Limbo occurs when the camera zeroes in on a single container of sumac perched among the ketchup, salt and pepper of the island’s sole grocery store. The shopkeeper remembered!

I found Limbo on Netflix.

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