“What should I say to an international student whose country is undergoing / has just undergone a very difficult situation due to an earthquake (or other climatic event), war (as either aggressor or aggressee), or political/military crackdown?”

On February 6 this year, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked southeast Turkey. During that period I was teaching two groups of international students that included Turks, Iranians, and Russians.

The next day, I wasn’t sure what to say to the two Turkish students (a married couple) in my class. As teachers, our first instinct is to be compassionate and to show interest, and by doing so show that we care. But what do you say? If you ask a question, you are forcing the student to answer. But they may not want to.

Here is what an Iranian student (the protests in Iran were particularly strong at the time of my lesson) wrote to me:

You cannot imagine how hard it is to talk about your “home” when you are deeply worried and sad about it – about your family you left there, about all your friends, and even people you do not know – when you cannot do anything to make it better. The worst part is that every time I want to establish a friendship with someone non Iranian, they all ask the same question. I understand that maybe they want to show their compassion, but still it takes me to the heart of Iran. I do not want to escape from thinking about it, but not in my first conversation with someone.

Basically she was saying that she simply doesn’t want to talk about it – or at least not to someone she doesn’t know well. But what about the Turks? Maybe their families or friends were involved, I couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. I discussed the issue with my wife and 20.year-old son and we decided that the best thing was simply to go up to them and say: I’m so sorry for what’s happened, and then move away and start the lesson. And that’s what I did, they nodded and felt acknowledged, and I showed that I cared. There was no awkwardness on either side.

Reflecting on it, for me it was important that I showed them I cared, but it was just as much for me as for them. I think this is an important point, don’t talk / ask about something just because it stops you from feeling bad that you didn’t show concern. Instead, think about how your question might affect them. Might they simply prefer the issue to be ignored?

Obviously it very much depends on the situation. If you know the student really well, it would be strange not to ask them how they and their family were. But sometimes, I have simply emailed the student. This means that there is no awkwardness, they can reply if they want.

But it is equally true that some students will actually welcome questions. A Sudanese student of mine wrote to me saying:

I don’t mind being asked about the situation in Sudan and my family, as it helps me feel that we are also important to others and that our lives matter. Showing sympathy is crucial. In general, I am open to all questions from my teachers regarding my country’s situation, it makes me feel better.

And a Russian, again in response to my question “what questions do you and do you not like being asked”:

I like all questions – about Putin, about war, about Zelenski – I can’t recall any I would dislike. Another issue is whether I’m willing to share my answers publicly. In this context, I won’t answer for any specific question regarding my neutral status. Like «Are you wishing Russia/Ukraine to win?» I would put under the risk my relatives both in Kyiv and Moscow.

These experiences in February, along with the comments I have received from my students, have spurred me to think about the questions I like to be asked myself, and those that I do not like. I then interviewed various students of mine and discovered that I had spent a lifetime asking people the wrong questions! This will be the subject of a future post.

Adrian Wallwork