Student refugees build new lives in Heights schools

I wanted to make my guests feel welcomed so I baked my mother’s ginger snaps. The cookies made my house smell good as five thoughtful high school students, Ruth, Ornela, Oshin, Tapash and Raja, chatted around my dining room table. They were accompanied by Carla Bailey, their cultural interpreter, advocate, coach, advisor, prod, driver and, at times, surrogate parent.

The students are refugees. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and religious persecution in Bhutan led their families to refugee camps in Namibia and Nepal. After several years, their families’ petitions to be permanently resettled were approved by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. US Together, a resettlement agency located in Cleveland Heights, supported the startup of their lives here, along with families fleeing the war in Iraq. New arrivals have just 90 days to become self-sufficient!

Ruth and Ornela arrived in September, while the other students have been here for two to four years. They are among 80 school-aged refugees currently enrolled in the Heights schools, and part of Northeast Ohio’s growing refugee presence. In 2014, the Refugee Service Collaborative, which includes the CH-UH school district, helped about 700 families resettle in Lakewood, Cleveland Heights and Cleveland.

I felt awkward, not wanting to intrude, yet wanting to understand what it’s like to plunge into a foreign reality, cut off from the homeland that defined their parents' lives but will not be theirs. They were polite and warmed to the conversation as they talked about surprises and challenges:

“Americans don’t eat at home.”

“I thought Cleveland Heights would be like the movies.”  

“Some days I don’t go to school, because it is exhausting.”

“I can feel lost. Everyone else is familiar with what is being taught, but it’s all new to me.”

These newcomers are thrown into the deep end and expected to swim. They have so much to learn: a new city, American culture and social norms, a different education system with different expectations, a new language. Many also hold jobs.

It is new to their elders, too, hampering their ability to provide the adult guidance that these young people need as they navigate new terrain and make important decisions.

The school district offers refugees the same support it offers other English Language Learners. Currently, the ELL department, chaired by Kathleen Scully, provides cultural orientation and language assistance to 129 students dispersed across the schools in the district.

Because the best way to acquire a new language is to use it, the district uses language immersion. Students are assigned to regular classrooms and are expected to achieve. They can receive up to three sessions of language support a week. Scully’s department also operates a welcome center for two hours each morning at the Delisle Center, to help orient new families to the basics of adapting to our system.

The school district is also helping in another way. The aforementioned Carla Bailey, a community volunteer and AFS-sponsored programs coordinator, works as the CH-UH refugee school-community liaison to help these students and their parents navigate the details that affect school success. The role is a natural extension of Bailey’s experience hosting AFS exchange students. She is riveted by the opportunity to help young people navigate a new culture. Her involvement started in 2011 when a refugee friend of her AFS student was invited to prom. “The parents didn’t understand that it was all part of high school life,” she recalled. “As high school students, my children lived in Thailand and Japan. That cultural exchange transformed their lives, so this is my way to pay it forward.”

Over the years, Bailey has identified key strategies that students and their families need to fit in, be safe, access transportation, stretch their resources, keep a job and get the most from the education system. She doesn’t hold back from telling them what they need to know. Last year, Bailey focused on the five refugees who were seniors at Heights High. All of them earned their diplomas, and four are now in college!

I feel fortunate to have shared cookies with these worldly students who have thrown themselves into high school life. They are enriching our schools while creating a positive adult future for themselves. Regardless of the hurdles, they are excited about the chance for a better life.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:32 AM, 12.31.2015