Before coming to work with iACT, I had never given much thought to what it means to be an American citizen. But, as I sat in on the naturalization ceremony held during June's World Refugee Day, I could not help but ponder what the significance of such a ceremony must be to people not born into US citizenship.
Personally, I would think pledging allegiance to a new country would be a bitter-sweet experience. Imagine fleeing oppression in the place where you were born and raised, only to come to a completely new country with new customs, traditions, and, most difficult of all, a new language. Such an experience would have me longing for the home I had left behind. Even so, the refugees turned citizens I met at World Refugee Day were all smiles as they received their citizenship certificates from the judge presiding over the ceremony. Continue Reading
Refugees are on my mind daily and have been since I started work at Interfaith Action of Central Texas in 2002. Back then iACT was called AAIM and I came to it looking for a job, not necessarily a cause. The past 13 years have fused those two things so that I can no longer separate them.
There are over 14 million refugees and displaced people in the world, less than one percent of them are the lucky ones who will be resettled permanently in a new country – usually about 70,000 annually in the US.
iACT provides year round English classes to all newly resettled adult refugees. In summer we add a 7-week program for refugee school-aged kids called iLearn. The 2015 iLearn session brought us 103 young refugees, 6- 18, from 8 different countries and ended with graduation on August 6th
. We must sincerely thank Central Presbyterian Church which houses our program for graciously welcoming over 200 people a day during some of the summer weeks.
After the summer program we follow up the next school year by checking on how the kids do in school and try to connect them with after school programs, tutoring, and with our own homework help site. This is only possible with collaboration with the Refugee Family Support Specialist at AISD. This year Peggy Robinson, who has been in that job for 6 years and has helped us so much year round, is retiring. We are feeling her loss but also looking forward to working with her replacement.
Refugee children in the Austin school district have very serious problems. They have all had interrupted and inadequate schooling and very limited exposure to English. Since they are generally assigned class levels according to their age, they may be taking 9th
grade social studies and algebra when they can’t even read at a first grade level.
The mandatory standardized tests make it highly improbable for a refugee arriving in the US as a teen to actually graduate from high school. The graduation rates of refugees in the Austin school district seem abysmal though no official statistics have been made. Unofficially, they seem to stand somewhere between 20 and 25%.
In addition to the academic issues, refugees in public school have other problems: cultural barriers, the past traumatic experiences, the sense of isolation and alienation common to displaced teens, as well as a belief that their parents are unable to help or support them. They are also the poorest of the poor in a peer group culture that idolizes possessions.
This year iACT for Refugees decided to do more and we are adding a pilot mentoring program. We have selected 10 kids in high school and we will find mentors for them who will help with their academics as well as with cultural and social issues that the whole family may face.
So we are looking for caring individuals over 18 (though a teen and a parent can mentor together) and we will try to secure two mentors for each refugee teen. The first mentorship training is at iACT office on August 20th
, 2015, at 6 pm. For more details contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently while visiting a summer camp two exuberant young adults came barreling toward me. I didn’t recognize them at first, but they remembered being in our summer youth program. One is in her second year of college, her brother was starting his first year at ACC – they were counselors at the camp. So there are kids who will find their way – they will do well, graduate, may even go on to college and success. But many won’t.
As I looked into the eyes of a hopeful teen from the Congo this summer, I saw her excitement about starting school and her happiness at being able to communicate that in English. So I am hopeful – but I do worry that without the daily support young refugees need, they will fall into a cycle of poverty that nobody deserves. Much less people who have already endured horrors we, the lucky ones, have only seen in movies.