For children from a different culture, navigating American schools can be a big learning curve. A summer program run by the Immigrant Refugee Community Organization helps Oregon’s newest young residents acclimate to public school.
In the past year, more than 750 refugees have settled in Oregon. This program helps young refugees before classes begin.
Teacher Jason Gregory points to an alphabet chart and leads his students in the alphabet song from the front of a Portland classroom.
His students range in age from 13 to 19, and they’re from Iran, Somalia, Bhutan. They’re all refugees, and they’re all in the early stages of learning English.
The 15 students in this class are part of a five-week summer program run by the Immigrant Refugee Community Organization in Portland. It’s a kind of academic boot camp for refugee students, with classes in math and literacy.
All of the students have been in the U.S. for less than nine months, and for many, they’ll enroll in an American school for the first this time this fall.
16-year-old Rand Irbahem is from Iraq. She’s lived most of her childhood at refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. She came to Oregon two months ago and is a little anxious about high school.
“I’m nervous about getting new friends,” says Irbahem. “And I am from Iraq so maybe they don’t like me or they hate people from other countries and say don’t come to our country. I love so much to have too many friends. I hope I meet new friends here and they will be good,” she said.
She says the summer program made her feel comfortable in a school. And, while this is an academic program, a big priority is also to get students acclimated to the American school system.
“We focus on providing a safe environment for the students to figure out the cultural hurdles that are very different than what they’ve grown up with and what they’ve known,” says Jeffrey Fuller, site supervisor of the program.
Teachers talk through things like how to use a locker, or what it means to raise your hand in class. They explain that it’s not necessary to stand at attention when a teacher calls your name, as is the custom in some countries. They also try to warn kids about things that they could get teased about.
“In some of the cultures, boys will hold hands as a sign of friendship not as a sign of more than friendship,” says Fuller. “We really want to say, ‘we don’t want to tell you not to do this, not that it’s a bad thing.’ You should feel comfortable doing this but—when you’re in an American high school you need to know how other people perceive it.”
Moses Ndagejimana is a 17-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He and his nine family members came to the U.S. two months ago. His first pair of American sneakers are neon yellow. Moses says his English has improved a lot since he started the program.
“You know I’m not very good at English,” says Ndagejimana. “Practice makes perfect. This is helpful.”
Like many in the program, Ndagejimana spent most of his childhood either on the run from violence or in a refugee camp.
Most of the students witnessed war in their home countries. Rand Ibraheem says she remembers death and violence in Baghdad as a 7-year-old.
“In Iraq I saw so many things it’s so hard and dangerous,” says Irbahem, her eyes filling with tears.
“While we were going to school, my mom was a teacher, sport teacher, so we go to the same school — so when we were going to school we see the dead bodies on the side of the road so she covered my eyes to move to school. I was so little so I don’t remember so much. But I remember this thing cause it’s so hard for us,” she said.
Rand says that she’s beginning to feel safe now in her new home. She’s glad for a fresh start for her family.
“We hope so it will be safe for us here and we will forget the hard days,” she explained.
Today is actually a good day for a fresh start for Ibrahem. It’s her sixteenth birthday. Her classmates from around the world surprise her with sugar cookies covered in pink frosting.
She’s serenaded with the birthday song in both English, and Arabic.
The final day of the summer class is Friday.