Welcoming Afghan School Children: How Milwaukee Educators Are Helping Refugees Transition To A New Life

Welcoming Afghan School Children: How Milwaukee Educators Are Helping Refugees Transition to a New Life

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James Sayavong has first-hand experience of being a refugee in America. His father, a military officer in Laos, faced the communist takeover of the country after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and the surrounding region. To protect their family, Sayavong’s mother hid important documents in the yard, fearing that the communist government would come after them. They managed to elude government authorities, allowing James and his siblings to continue attending school in Laos for a few more years. However, realizing the difficult circumstances, the family made the tough decision to flee. They sought refuge in a camp in Thailand before eventually settling in the Philippines. When they arrived in Milwaukee, James Sayavong was 21 years old with no high school diploma and an uncertain future.

Today, Sayavong serves as the principal of the Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language (MACL), a Milwaukee Public School (MPS) located just a short distance from Marquette University. Within MACL, there exists the International Newcomer Center (INC), which often serves as the first point of entry for refugee children arriving in Milwaukee. The school is currently making preparations for the arrival of Afghan children who will soon be coming to town from Fort McCoy.

After being airlifted to the United States, thousands of Afghans are currently being accommodated at a military base in west central Wisconsin. According to MPS officials, federal authorities have informed them that approximately 500 of these Afghans will eventually settle in Wisconsin, although the latest count stands at 399. The exact number of school-aged children within this group is still unknown.

MPS officials believe that the majority of Afghans who settle in Wisconsin will gravitate towards the state’s major cities for several reasons. Firstly, cities like Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay possess the necessary infrastructure to support the social and educational transition of refugee children. These city school systems have already undergone similar processes in the past, with recent experiences involving children from Somalia and the Rohingya from Myanmar (Burma).

Additionally, refugees from the same countries often cluster together. Along the interstate highway between Minneapolis and Milwaukee, Hmong families can be found in every large community.

Lastly, many Afghans arriving in Wisconsin hail from larger urban centers, such as the capital city, Kabul, which has a population of over 4.5 million. As a result, the larger cities in Wisconsin may provide a more familiar environment for these individuals.

The MPS is actively preparing for an unspecified number of children to arrive. Retired Green Bay school board member Mike Blecha recalls the language barriers faced by Somali parents and students when they initially joined his school district. At the time, neither the district nor the Somali parents were proficient in English or Somali, respectively. Ultimately, the school system discovered one Somali high school student who could speak French, which is widely spoken in Somalia due to the country’s history as a French colony. This particular student became the translator, bridging the language gap.

Kourosh Hassani, the ESL Teacher Leader for MPS, is fluent in Persian Farsi. Since approximately 78% of Afghans speak Dari Farsi, Hassani and others who migrated from Iran should be capable of communicating with Afghans in their native language. Moreover, many of the Afghans arriving in the United States have previous experience as translators for U.S. military and government officials, enabling them to be proficient in English. In contrast to Somalians and Rohingya refugees who arrived without any prior connections, many Afghans have existing contacts with U.S. soldiers they collaborated with and fought alongside.

Erin Sivek, an English and ESL teacher, worked at South Division High School for three years, primarily teaching students who spoke Spanish. However, her program soon became inundated with students from various African and Asian countries. MPS officials invited her to join the INC due to her ability to bridge gaps with students from diverse backgrounds. Initially uncertain about transitioning from high school to middle school, Sivek now believes it was the right decision looking back on the ten years she has spent at the INC.

MACL, being a K-8 school, integrates K-3 refugee students into regular classes while providing additional support from ESL teachers, psychologists, and social workers. The rationale behind this approach is that even if refugee children have limited or no formal education prior to arriving in Milwaukee, younger students are typically only a few grade levels behind and can catch up.

Nevertheless, the educational gap may be substantial for middle school students. Sayavong shares that they have encountered students who lacked fundamental skills, such as knowing how to hold a pencil.

Sivek emphasizes that there is much for students to learn, even for those who can read and write in another language. The written language in Afghanistan bears similarities to Arabic script, featuring right-to-left writing and utilizing a different alphabet.

Some students come from educational systems that heavily rely on memorization and repetitive learning methods. Sivek mentions that these students often struggle when transitioning to instruction that emphasizes critical thinking. However, not all of these differences apply to students from other countries. For instance, students from Zambia and Malawi have received education similar to students in the United States.

There are also cultural and religious gaps that need to be addressed. During recess, a student asked Sivek why she didn’t wear a hijab because "You’re Muslim." She clarified that she is not Muslim and when asked about her religion, she responded that she is Christian. This response led other girls to reconsider their attitude, as they initially expressed animosity towards her but quickly changed their perspective.

Sivek recalls an incident where a male middle-school student told her, "We don’t have to listen to you. Men are in charge." In response, she proposed a discussion to address the issue.

Although Afghan children come from an ethnically segregated country, most of those arriving in America have been exposed to a Western lifestyle. They have attended classes with both genders and have witnessed women holding positions of authority in various sectors. While girls and women may choose to wear head coverings, they typically do not wear burqas, which fully cover women’s bodies from head to toe. Hassani asserts that Afghan girls and women do not want to be obligated to wear burqas.

Sivek cherishes the memories of students who visit her even after they have left her class. This includes students who previously had behavioral issues or did not feel a sense of belonging. They often come back together, showcasing unity across ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. Sivek views this as one of the most rewarding aspects of her work.

Many students have traumatic memories of the hardships they faced when fleeing their home countries and living in refugee camps. Sayavong recalls an instance where Rohingya refugees were unable to come to the United States immediately due to the COVID pandemic. Tragically, a mother in one family was diagnosed with cancer while in a refugee camp in Malaysia. She passed away only two weeks after arriving in Milwaukee with her family. The father, now responsible for a four-year-old and a second grader, struggled to rebuild their lives in a foreign country without their mother. The four-year-old cried every day at school, and it took time for them to adjust and resume normal functioning.

According to Sivek, students who have experienced trauma may initially exhibit a sense of resignation. She remembers a student who would often write about missing home, eventually leading to disengagement and eventually non-attendance. It took considerable effort to bring this student back on track, but they eventually managed to enroll in college.

The emotional impact on Afghan children arriving in Wisconsin currently remains unknown. The experience of being uprooted and transported thousands of miles away to an unfamiliar land is certain to have profound emotional effects.

This year, INC will have a dedicated psychologist, a social worker, and a parent coordinator who was once a student at INC after fleeing her home country in Africa. This support team aims to address the unique needs of the students and their families.

Due to many Afghans arriving in the United States with English language skills and some even possessing college credits or advanced degrees, MPS is exploring the possibility of employing Afghans as classroom paraprofessionals. There is also consideration for transitioning them into roles as ESL or classroom teachers.

Many MACL middle school students continue their education at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, which is located just a half mile away. Music teachers from MHSA visit MACL to provide instrumental music education. Sayavong remarks that although these students may not yet be fluent in English, they can still participate in music classes. Their involvement in the instrumental program serves as an audition for potential admission to MHSA. Consequently, MHSA has increased the number of ESL teachers to support these students.

Sivek believes that high school students who come directly to MPS without going through the INC program should have a comprehensive transition program similar to the one at MACL. Currently, many high school refugee students receive extensive ESL support at South Division, but Sivek believes it is insufficient. In the past, plans for a more developed transition program were discussed but were never put into action. Sivek hopes that the superintendent and the board reconsider the creation of a dedicated high school welcome center.

Reflecting on her experiences, Sivek expresses gratitude for having students from diverse religions, language groups, and countries. Once integrated into the program and learning together, these students discover the commonalities they share. Sivek optimistically concludes by stating that they are poised to have a fantastic year.

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  • joshwright

    Josh Wright is a 34-year-old educational blogger and school teacher who has been working in the field for over a decade. He has written extensively on a variety of educational topics, and is passionate about helping others achieve their educational goals.

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