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Refugees Learn ABCs of Life in America

For African families, almost nothing in the U.S. looks like home. Schools are trying to ease the newcomers' transition, confusion.

July 09, 2006|Cara Anna | Associated Press Writer

UTICA, N.Y. — Several months after she came to America, Batula Mukoma still thought her children studied under a tree.

In Somalia, that was the kind of school she knew. The teacher used a blackboard and students copied lessons with their fingers in the dirt. There were no books. They went home when it rained.

So Mukoma was astounded last fall when she and other new refugees were invited to an orientation at Kernan Elementary. This is a gym, here is the cafeteria, this is a report card that charts student progress, school officials explained.

Was it anything like home? Mukoma starts laughing, and she speaks one of the few English words she's familiar with: "no."

Almost nothing about America looks like home. In the last two years, Mukoma and thousands of others have arrived from regions that offered little to compare with their new and structured world. Their transition hasn't been without its share of pain.

As America's mix of refugees makes a dramatic cultural shift, Kernan Elementary, as with schools nationwide, is trying to ease such confusion. Past waves of refugees came from more Westernized areas such as Bosnia, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union. Today, they are more like Mukoma, fleeing some of Africa's most remote and war-ravaged regions.

The largest group of the past two years is the 22,500 Somalis, many of whom are former nomads and often illiterate.

States are creating ways to help a people who have little concept of the daily activities many Americans take for granted. They offer video tutorials on school routines, orientation camps and welcome centers for children. Some lessons start with how to hold a pencil. Sometimes the lesson is more basic.

Charles Shipman, Arizona's refugee coordinator, has seen a lot in 20 years of refugee work. Then he learned that stairs could stop people cold.

Some of the 1,300 Somali Bantu arriving in his state had never encountered stairs and didn't know how to use them. They didn't know where they'd be once they reached the top. Instructors had to talk them through the entire process. "You just don't think of it, how incredibly strange it must have seemed," Shipman says.

Arizona, Oregon, Texas and Massachusetts are increasingly finding aid programs for refugees, especially children in school.

Refugee workers in Houston produced a video that explains daily routines, from how to line up in the cafeteria to how to use the restroom. At a welcome center in Tucson, employees enroll students and hand out school supplies. After concerned residents filed a federal complaint last year, the Springfield, Mass., school district agreed to hire more bilingual tutors and offer after-school English programs.

States are finding that not acting could cause a generation of the most fragile newcomers to fall behind.

And the need for such educational programs continues. The United States is prepared to accept another 20,000 African refugees this year, more than from any other region, the State Department says.

To address that need, New York state is starting a $5-million, five-year school refugee program this fall. State officials have asked school districts for proposals on how best to introduce new students to a classroom environment.

Landing in the bright candyland of a classroom can be overwhelming. Jefferson Elementary in Utica, where 10,000 residents of the small industrial city are refugees, led new arrivals into a room to have their first experience with scissors, crayons and other tools. They seemed to be overstimulated, Principal Maggie Beck says.

A few kids even bit their teachers in frustration because they didn't know what was going on, says Ioana Balint with the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

The new state program will incorporate parents, who sometimes have no education themselves. Many have spent years on the run from civil war, or in stark refugee camps. Then there's the background of a communal culture that assumes one child's pencil is everyone's pencil, and so on.

"There are a lot of different things they explained to me," Mukoma says of Kernan Elementary's staff. She speaks in her language, Maymay, through a family member and interpreter, Abdi Hassan.

Mukoma lists what she learned. "Keep the children clean. Come on time. Where to take the bus. Control the children. Keep talking with the teachers."

She was happy to visit Kernan, where three of her four children are studying. They will be educated people, she says; they will know computers. For herself, she knows she can get only an assembly job. "No English," she says shyly in English.

But even she has a classroom now. After the interview, Mukoma returns to her English as a Second Language class off a long, echoing hallway at the refugee center. It is one of several rooms filled with adults from Myanmar, Sudan, Bosnia and other places. She sits at the back, adjusting her bright yellow embroidered headscarf, and returns to her worksheets. Today's lesson is pronouns: He, she, him, her.

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