Refugee Kids Find That 'Summer School Is Cool' As They Learn How To Navigate Their New Home

Sep 2, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This weekend marks the unofficial end of summer, which means that for many, next week is the official start of the school year. So we thought we'd spend a few minutes talking about issues in education. And we'll start with schoolchildren who are also refugees. More than 27,000 refugees entering the U.S. were school-aged children last year. Many were not ready for the classroom. For nearly a decade, a resettlement program has been running summer school for refugee kids near Seattle to help them get ready to learn. From member station KUOW, Ruby de Luna reports.

RUBY DE LUNA, BYLINE: Inside Showalter Middle School, about 10 miles south of Seattle, students are concentrating on cards filled with pictures of animals.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: OK. Our next word, this is a hard one. Can you guys say it with me? Guinea pig. Guinea pig.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Guinea pig.

DE LUNA: They put a marker on the animal being called out. They do this until someone gets...

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Who got bingo?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Bingo.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Wow.

DE LUNA: The students are playing bingo for the first time. Eleven-year-old Alaa Bazara was born in Syria. Her native language is Arabic. Last December, she and her family resettled in Seattle. Initially, Bazara didn't want to come to summer school because she didn't speak any English.

ALAA BAZARA: Like, everybody laughing to me.

DE LUNA: Clearly, she's learned some. And now, she has a different take on summer school.

ALAA: Like, it's cool. Summer school, it's cool.

DE LUNA: Because learning is fun.

ALAA: Play soccer. And we learn English and go library.

DE LUNA: Even though she's a beginning reader in English, she checked out a book, a children's book about Islam. For Bazara and her 33 classmates, English is their second, even third language. They come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal. Some have had little schooling, partly because their families were fleeing war. That makes learning a new language a challenge.

STEVI HAMILL: It's much easier, even if you've written in Arabic - which is not the same alphabet - to learn how to write in English if you have previous reading and writing experience in your mother tongue.

DE LUNA: Stevi Hamill is with the International Rescue Committee, the refugee resettlement agency running the summer school program. Hamill and her team developed lesson plans to help students build vocabulary and math skills. They include field trips to meet librarians, police officers and firefighters. The program also teaches them soft skills to help when they start school in the fall.

HAMILL: Things like lining up, raising your hand, sitting down for an extended amount of time, how we act in the cafeteria.

DE LUNA: Hamill says teachers are trained to watch how students are doing emotionally, too.

HAMILL: A way that that might play out is I'm teaching a lesson, and all of a sudden, a student's under a desk and really, like, quite visibly shaken, and I have no idea why.

DE LUNA: So instead of assuming the kid is acting out and responding with a reprimand, Hamill says she would ask...

HAMILL: Why don't you feel safe right now? How can I help you in this situation?

DE LUNA: Hamill says they're not trying to be mental health counselors, but to help students get to a point where they feel safe again.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) The horn on the bus goes beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.

DE LUNA: At the end of the five-week long summer program, the younger students show the audience what they've been learning.

(APPLAUSE)

DE LUNA: Alaa Bazara's mother, Emtisal, watches with the other parents and teachers. She's beaming.

EMTISAL BAZARA: (Through interpreter) What I hope is for my kids to fulfill their dreams. And that's what I hope for kids all over the world, just when they have a dream, they can achieve it.

HAMILL: And we are proud to present certificates of completion for IRC summer school to our secondary students.

DE LUNA: After the acknowledgements and praise, the students walk up to the stage to receive their diploma and a new backpack.

HAMILL: Alaa.

(APPLAUSE)

DE LUNA: It's a moment full of pride and expectation. So as the new school year begins, these kids are ready to navigate a new chapter in their lives. For NPR News, I'm Ruby de Luna in Tukwila, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.