My students were my teachers: One member’s story of tutoring torture survivors

It may be hard to imagine, but people are tortured in countries around the world for such reasons as their political views, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. Over 200,000 survivors of torture from Africa and Asia are believed to reside in the United States, some of them in North Carolina and Wake County.

UUFR reaches out to these people through our Immigrant and Refugee Justice Ministry. We work with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, who recently put out a call for tutors and ESL teachers. Here, UUFR member Lesley Koustaff shares her life-changing experience with teaching torture survivors. (Go to the end of this article for more information about how to get involved.)

By Lesley Koustaff, Immigrant and Refugee Justice Ministry Team

Before I came to Cary two years ago, I taught four of the most amazing human beings I know through the NYU/Bellevue Program for Survivors of Torture in New York.  We worked together for twelve wonderful years.

Maky, Haja, Thierno and Ousmane

Haja had never held a pencil in her life. I taught her to read and write. The day that she wrote her name for the first time she burst into tears and said, “For the first time in my life I know I am smart.” I told her I knew that the first time I met her, but she had to find that out for herself. From then on she became a voracious reader, reading dictionaries (!) and any book she could lay her hands on. Haja is incredibly smart. She taught me how to text!

One day I told Haja I was going to Mexico to do some teacher training for a school called Harmon Hall. Haja insisted on writing the teachers a letter as she thinks English teachers change lives, and she wanted to thank them. I read her letter there and the teachers were so moved they each wrote Haja a letter telling her she was inspirational. Haja had never received a letter in her life. I returned to New York with 150 letters. Haja burst out crying when I gave them to her. She could not understand how she could be an inspiration to anyone. This changed Haja at a very deep level. She asked me to put the letters in a strong plastic bag for her as she wants to be buried with them.

My students were my teachers. They had nothing, lived from hand to mouth, sometimes not eating as they all sent money home, yet they never complained. They love and appreciate the U.S. as it has given them safety. I was lucky enough to have generous friends who gave me clothes for them, some designer. One year in winter they all needed warm clothes. My friends gave me a lot. I laid the clothes out on the table and told them to choose what they wanted. They said, “No, we can’t choose yet as Ousmane isn’t here yet.” They had nothing, yet weren’t greedy. It made me think deeply about what I would have done in that situation.

Through generous donations by friends I was able to reunite Thierno and Ousmane with their families by bringing them to the U.S. My students and their families all work, pay taxes, and contribute to society. Thierno’s daughter is about to graduate from college – a first in the history of his family. Maky married and Haja is a health care worker. Ousmane’s sons both work driving Uber and taxis.

Volunteering isn’t selfless. Volunesia is a noun I love. It means that moment when you forget you’re volunteering to help change lives, because it’s changing yours. Maky, Thierno, Haja, and Ousmane have changed me profoundly and I miss them dearly. We are still in touch and will be for the rest of my life.

The Raleigh office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has put out a request for volunteers. If you can offer your skills, contact them directly at [email protected]


We have students ages 6 – 20, with varying levels of English fluency, who need assistance to succeed in school. The subjects vary from math, science, reading to general homework help. Sessions will be conducted remotely using WhatsApp or Zoom.


We currently have adult clients (and the list keeps growing!) who are eager to advance their English skills. Our current volunteers have already taken on additional students, but we still need more experienced ESL instructors. Sessions will be conducted remotely using WhatsApp or Zoom.

If you want more information about UUFR’s work with refugees and immigrants, contact the Immigrant and Refugee Justice Ministry Team at [email protected]