High school is hard enough when you’re an American student, but what is it like when you are a refugee? Not only do refugee students have all the same challenges that Americans have – making friends, fitting in, keeping up in school, peer pressure, etc., but they have a whole other set of challenges to deal with as newcomers to this country.
The JFS Counseling Center has a program called International KidSuccess, which helps refugee and immigrant students adjust to life in their new land by providing mental health services in the school. Services include adjustment groups, consultation services, and psychological education. Our therapists also provide teacher training, parent education, and information and referral. The main goal of this program is to facilitate cultural adjustment and address social-emotional needs.
Our International KidSuccess therapists conduct quarterly cultural trainings for teachers and other school staff members to educate them about some of the specific challenges that students from certain countries experience and how best to work with these students. Recently, several students came to one of the trainings to share their stories, which was very enlightening for the educators. Below are a few excerpts from these stories that we hope will shed a little light to the variety of challenges these students are experiencing. The International KidSuccess program is working hard to help the kids and educators understand each other and make the transition to school in this country easier for everyone!
came to America in 2008 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo via a refugee camp in the Central African Republic. His family fled the Congo because Junior’s father was assassinated for his political beliefs and government position. Jules and his family moved from the Congo when he was just seven years old and they spent the next seven years in a refugee camp. He is very happy to be in America because life is so different from where he grew up.
He wants to encourage his American teachers to learn more about the different cultures of foreign students and respect the differences, which will lessen some of the misunderstandings he has experienced. Teachers need to know that students learn in groups in different countries. Jules doesn’t like being segregated because of his English, which makes it difficult for him to get to know students in other classes. He wishes he could continue his English studies, but be integrated into other mainstream classes. He wants to graduate and go to college to pursue a career helping others.
“Aminah” was able to come to America from war-torn Iraq because her father worked with an American company and her family was able to escape. She is a Sunni Muslim and was persecuted because of her family’s religion. Because her father worked with Americans, the family was further ostracized as traitors. They were under the constant threat of being kidnapped or killed.
The Sunni and Shia Muslims are in constant conflict. You can tell if a person is Sunni or Shia based on their name. When she was in school, Aminah’s teacher didn’t give her full credit for her work simply because of her name. When her mother came to school to ask why, the teacher encouraged her to change her daughter’s name.
Aminah is very happy in the U.S. and likes her school, but there are some significant differences that have required some getting used to. For example, in Iraq, teachers came to her class while in the U.S., students rotate to various classes. She feels that tests and class work was much harder in Iraq. Another big difference is that after 6th grade, boys and girls are separated in Iraq and she is adjusting to the co-ed environment. She studied English in Iraq for five years, which has helped her immensely. Her biggest challenge has been making friends in America.
Aminah feels that teachers in America should not compare students as much as they do. She also feels that it would be helpful if teachers could learn a little bit about her culture. She hopes to go to college and study dentistry.
came to America from Ethiopia in 2006, after spending two years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Her father was active in politics because he wanted to bring new freedom for Ethiopians and ended up in prison. She is one of 18 children in her family. Kiya is Oromo, an Ethiopian ethnic group—the largest in the country—that constitutes more than 30% of the population. According to Kiya, if you are Oromo, you don’t get to go to school or have opportunities in life. Only the Amharic language is used in schools, and many Oromo can’t speak it.
Kiya was surprised and happy when they came to America and had the opportunity to attend school for the first time in her life. It has been especially difficult and confusing for her to learn the culture. She remains very thankful for her family because they were always there for her through very difficult times.
Attending American schools has been both rewarding and challenging for Kiya. She is impressed with how her teachers motivate and advise students. The hardest thing for her has been learning English. She has also had difficulty starting in the 7th grade when she has never attended school before. She likes the diversity of people at her school and likes that she can talk to her teachers and choose her own classes.
Kiya wishes her teachers would be more sensitive to her culture. For example, when she first arrived, she always looked down and her teachers thought she was not listening, but in her culture this is a sign of respect. She hopes to go to college and study business and one day return to Ethiopia to help her people.
-Alaina Green and Kari Alpen, JFS Marketing Department