I can still remember my daughter coming home after school when she was in the first grade, crying because a classmate had taunted her about her black skin.
“Did your mom drink too much black coffee when she was pregnant with you?” The little girl asked my daughter. Granted, these words have a racial connotation, but children are not racist. They only act out of what they don’t know; what they have not been taught, due to the lack of exposure and learning about people who are different from them.
Even though I was an adult when I moved to North America, I still longed to fit in and to be fully accepted. Thus, these types of comments my children endured were hurtful, because I had moved as a refugee, looking for a better life for my family. I endured racism, sexism and all other types of isms, and didn’t want my children to experience this pain too.
This is what happens to many new immigrant and refugee students who come to the United States. Imagine dealing with discrimination a world away from your place of origin. Being uprooted (through no fault of your own), from everything and everyone you know and starting over in a new country with a new culture.
As is to be expected, every kid wants to feel that they belong and fit in their school environment; students who come from different countries are no different. They face all types of challenges, and one of the biggest stressors I know from personal experience is the feeling of isolation. Many immigrants come from collective cultures, where there is a sense of community. It is understandable that they find it hard to integrate into the individualistic American society.
Many refugee students experience a sense of loneliness and confusion, because of the lack of culturally relevant curricula. They don’t know how to connect with their peers. Many refugee students come from circumstances very different from those of their classmates. Many children have fled their home countries in the turmoil of war and endured traumatic journeys to get to safety. Some kids have witnessed things no person should, such as seeing their parents get killed, or sexually abused and tortured. Other kids are survivors of rape and abuse.
With so much going on in our current social environment, communities need to come together and build each other up. And it begins with each one of us, doing what we can, from where we are, and where we have most personal power. Here are a few ways we can help meet the needs of refugee students, and support them in their integration.
1. Teaching children about differences
When I speak in schools, the No. 1 insecurity I hear from immigrant students of all backgrounds is the fear of being different. Refugee students report being ostracized in the classroom by their peers, who taunt them with unfriendly comments because they don’t look, act or speak like their American-born classmates. As parents, we have the power to build a better world by raising our children to stay open. Begin by talking with your children about differences, in themselves and others. Teach them acceptance of self and others. Every refugee student is unique and has a meaningful story that can enrich your kids, if they have an open mind.
2.Acknowledging individual needs
One of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that all refugee students have the same needs. For example, when it comes to English, some students come to the U.S. already fluent. Some are not, but manage to understand or speak a little English. Others may have never set foot in a school before. Some students come from well-to-do families, while others have never seen a flushing toilet (inside the house, people!). Some students may have been educated at private schools, while others struggled to pay their school fees. The point is, not all refugee students have the same story. So, it is important to meet them where they are, and give them the appropriate support they need to be successful.
3. Having mentors from the host community
Being resettled has its own sets of challenges, because refugee students must start anew. This is where the host community outside the classroom can provide support. There are limitless ways families from the Seattle community can help refugee students and their families. Here are just a few ideas:
• Helping with childcare during the parent-teacher meetings
• Inviting a refugee student for a play date with your own kid, so they can socialize and learn from one another.
• Helping refugee families who can’t read in English with the information sent home from school.
• Exchanging knowledge and stories with refugee students.
4. Building partnerships between families, schools and community organizations
The stress that comes from being uprooted, as well as the fact that some families have to endure poverty and discrimination, can be alleviated by community mentoring. This is a tremendous way to support refugee students, and tailor services and programs that meet not only their needs, but also the needs of their families.
5. Offering brave spaces for refugee students
Opening spaces of welcome for refugee students, where they can feel brave enough to explore their stories, to reflect and heal from their trauma, will help them integrate into the Seattle community.
Seconde Nimenya is a Seattle-based author and diversity advocate. For more on her work, visit SecondeNimenya.com