Putting it in Perspective: A World Class Education for Resettled Refugees in the U.S.

Posted by Jenny Fernandez on Fri, Nov 18, 2011 at 14:05 pm

I was recently accepted to study abroad in Madrid, Spain, for my fall semester. As a study abroad student, I worry about getting my student visa, obtaining my course equivalency list so that I get credit for my classes, and adjusting to the initial culture shock of being in a new country. My situation is temporary, as I will only be there for six months. However, refugees who are lucky enough to be resettled in the United States and who enter our primary and secondary school system face a much different, sometimes confusing, and altogether more permanent situation. Luckily, much like the programs foreign universities run for American students who wish to study abroad, the U.S. Refugee Program works to incorporate refugee students into the education system while providing them with the support and skills that will allow them to prosper in the United States.

The 1951 Convention of Refugees states that refugees are people who are fleeing their countries of origin because of persecution or fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Each year, the United States Government offers the opportunity for up to 80,000 refugees to start anew. People from all over the world who have had to live their lives in fear have been settled in hundreds of cities across the U.S. With the help of the U.S. Refugee Program and many local refugee resettlement agencies, community based organizations, and local churches and synagogues, families are given a home, employment and educational opportunities, and a place to live without constant fear of persecution.

There have been incredible stories of children who have come from horrible conditions in their home countries to take advantage of living in the U.S. and attending school, finding work, and even going back to their homeland to teach and help others. The Lost of Boys of Sudan have been particularly visible over the past decade and were the focus of a 2003 documentary. The film details the horrors the young boys faced in Sudan and the challenges they faced once resettled in the U.S. One of the boys has been able to enroll in community college on a full scholarship and is now working to relocate his family that has been living in refugee camps in Africa. Many others have graduated high school, obtained college degrees, or successfully started work. In St. Paul Minnesota, a mentorship program that works with Karen refugees from Myanmar exists to help teach English to Karen students in middle school. Two of the alumnae from the Karen mentorship program graduated high school, received scholarships, and are now the first two Karen students to attend Hamline University.

There are thousands of refugees who have found success in the U.S. education system through mentorship programs, English language training, and with the help of multicultural career counselors and community leaders. Of course, there are always areas that could be improved. Although refugees receive basic cultural orientation and English language training abroad before they are resettled, it is often difficult to continue with this once resettled in the U.S. Many families have several family members working full time, and they are therefore unable to attend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that are held during the day. Many communities are addressing this issue by working with community leaders to find teachers to hold classes on the evenings and weekends so that a greater percentage of the resettled population can attend them. Schools in Denver and St. Paul have hired multicultural staff that not only perform outreach to resettled communities, but provide translation services for teachers, students, and parents in order to bridge the communication gap and impress upon families the importance of keeping students in school so that they are better able to obtain jobs that will help provide for their families. These community and state sponsored programs are a huge step in the right direction towards better incorporating refugees into the American school system and work force, as well as addressing the needs of those populations that we have brought to the U.S.

American students like me are increasingly taking advantage to live, study, and work abroad. Students who come to the U.S. are looking for the same chances here. The U.S Refugee Program and the resettlement agencies that work with the U.S. Government aim to provide those opportunities, encourage students and families to take advantage of them, and help resettled refugees succeed in education and work in the U.S.

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