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“Am I in America, Really?” Refugee Students Leave Terror Behind, Look to Future

Gloria Tungabose’s eyes flash as she tells of her father, killed in Burundi. Her mother’s ethnicity was Tutsi and her father’s was Hutu, and the two groups were engaged in a bloody civil war. Her mother, Butoyi, was arrested.

“My mom went to jail and was raped there and had my sister,” said the East Kentwood High School student, describing how men measured her mother’s nose to determine her ethnicity.

The family moved to Congo, where violence also raged, Gloria said. They eventually arrived at a refugee camp in Namibia, living off rations of flour, beans, oil, sugar and salt, carrying drinking water to their shelters and going to school. She was 10 years old, and would remain there for three years.

Related Story: Student Braves ‘Train of Death’ to Come to U.S., Go to School

In 2013, there were an estimated 10.7 million individuals who were displaced due to conflict or persecution

  • 50 percent of the refugee population is under the age of 18
  • 80 percent of unaccompanied minors are between the ages of 15 and 17

What unaccompanied minors are fleeing

  • War and political violence
  • Ethnic or religious persecution
  • Trafficking
  • Abuse, abandonment and neglect
  • Community violence/gang recruitment.

Source: Bethany Christian Services and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2013

Sponsored by a local organization, Gloria moved to Michigan four years ago, to discover a place where snow falls in the winter, people ride daily in cars and buses and where she can go to school with students from many different backgrounds. Now she can graduate from high school, go to college and become a nurse.

“I feel like it’s a dream and I’m still sleeping. Am I in America, really?” she asked. “I just have to live life and accept the reality in it. Even though the past was horrible and bad, I want to make my future better and help people in the future.”

Gloria’s story is similar to many refugee students who attend East Kentwood High School. They’ve escaped war. They’ve ridden on top of trains to elude dangerous gangs. They’ve seen family members murdered. They’ve crossed oceans and lived in refugee camps. They’ve faced religious and ethic persecution unlike most Americans ever experience.

Now they are seated at their desks Monday through Friday, reading literature, learning algebra, studying U.S. history and taking Michigan Merit Curriculum tests. They dream of careers, financial security, a future without violence.

A Mosaic of Backgrounds

School diversity is often painted with a broad brush: white, black, Hispanic and Asian. But in Kentwood Public Schools, where students there come from 89 different countries, that picture is much more detailed. Diversity means students hail from all over the globe: from bustling Indian and Chinese cities to mountainous Balkan countries, to African tribal communities.

“We have 61 languages spoken here, which creates unique challenges,” said Erin Wolohan, an interventionist who works with students learning English. “We have many, many languages and cultures, so we have to come up with unique solutions.”

Many students speak half a dozen or more languages, a result of growing up in several countries, as their families fled areas and resettled in others. Gloria speaks Swahili, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, English, French and Portuguese. She has already graduated out of the English Language (ELL) Learner program, and her accent is barely detectable.

“I feel great. I am surrounded by different cultures. I feel at home,” she said.

Unique Challenges

Newcomers arrived in waves to the Grand Rapids area from Bosnia, Kosovo, Vietnam and other Asian countries, Burma, Nepal and Africa. Many have moved to the Kentwood area because of housing availability. In the 8,856-student Kentwood Public Schools district there is an English-language learner population of 1,686 students, 19 percent of the district.

“For the past two decades Kentwood Public Schools has experienced a demographic shift within our student population,” said Shirley Johnson, assistant superintendent of Student Services.

One way the district has responded is to provide cultural competency training to all employees to address the numerous challenges: logistic, communication and cultural. Teachers help with transportation and in reaching parents who don’t have cars or driver’s licenses, and who work second- and third-shift jobs. The district spends approximately $60,000 annually on translation services.

Two Kentwood schools, Meadowlawn Elementary and Crestwood Middle, have Newcomer Center programs for which students receive full-time, intensive ELL instruction. The high school also has many newcomer classrooms. Recently, in ELL social studies teacher Carlotta Schroeder’s class, students from Nepal, Burma, Congo and many other countries finished their first-semester exams.

Damber Chhetra, who came from Nepal five years ago, said his family came for better opportunities. “It’s a better life. I can have a better education,” Damber said. “I like the way the teachers teach. It’s different. They are so nice to the students.” He wants to become a computer engineer.

Rwandan refugee Sifa Nyamuhungu and Gloria Tungabose join each other at the lunch table
Rwandan refugee Sifa Nyamuhungu and Gloria Tungabose join each other at the lunch table

Students Settle Where Housing is Available

Families often live in apartments, and children who come unaccompanied by parents live with foster families and have church sponsors. Many high school students, without families to take them in, begin living on their own.

There are several reasons the Grand Rapids area became a destination for refugees, Johnson said. Grand Rapids participated in the resettlement of refugees even before 1980, when the Refugee Resettlement Act was passed authorizing more organizations to help facilitate refugee migration to the U.S. Some local agencies include Bethany Christian Services, Lutheran Social Services and West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center.

Placement of refugees is based on housing availability. Resettlement agencies work with landlords to get fair and affordable housing, said Susan Kragt, executive director of the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center, located in Kentwood. Because Kentwood and Grand Rapids school districts have newcomer center schools, most refugee children end up in those schools.

School is sometimes entirely new for refugee children. Many come from non-urban areas without formal education systems, putting them behind academically. For teachers, nothing can be assumed or taken for granted, ELL Interventionist Wolohan said. Even the volume of someone’s voice can seem aggressive to non-English-speaking students.

Students have cultural differences and experiences that affect attitudes toward education, the roles of men and women and how they interact with each other. They may have never seen snow before, so aren’t prepared for cold winters. There’s also pressure from family members for teenagers to go straight to work to make money, Wolohan said. Kentwood teachers encourage them to stay in school because they will make more money in the long run, she said.

Adjusting to the Culture

A key piece in breaking down barriers is helping students and their families adjust to U.S. culture, as well as educating teachers about their needs, Kragt said.

The center works with refugee students through its School Impact Program. The program provides orientation sessions for students and parents; holds workshops for educators on the resettlement process and the cultural backgrounds of refugees; hosts panel discussions with refugee students and offers eight-week peer support groups for middle- and high-school students.

Workshops inform educators about students’ prior school experiences, and alert teachers to the symptoms of culture shock and trauma that can leave refugee students feeling isolated and depressed, Kragt said.

“Unfortunately, sometimes our kids get bullied,” she said. “We talk about the trauma of what they’ve been through, but sometimes it can be more traumatic trying to fit into a new culture… Their classmates are looking at them going, ‘You’re different.'”

Also, Wolohan added, it’s incorrect to assume students are here because they want to be. While many came for a better life, often they wish they could have stayed in their own countries.

“It’s a lonely life,it’s a hard life. They know they are better off than where they were, but it wasn’t their idea,” she said. “It’s not like they woke up one day and said, ‘I want to live in America.’ We have that misnomer that we think they should be so thankful to be here, and they are grateful, ultimately. But that doesn’t mean they don’t miss their families. If they could go back to their homeland and have it be more free, they would.”

Nepali refugee students Bhim Chuwan, Chandra Subba and Yoga Sharma have come a long way to be part of the EL program at East Kentwood High School
Nepali refugee students Bhim Chuwan, Chandra Subba and Yoga Sharma have come a long way to be part of the EL program at East Kentwood High School

A Welcoming Environment

Teachers are encouraged to lead by example in the classroom, giving other students “less permission to pick on that kid,” Kragt said. “These kids are not going to be the ones going around introducing themselves to everybody. They need people to reach out and say, ‘Hey, how are you?'”

The big picture is to help students acclimate permanently. A successful school experience is crucial to refugee families’ fortunes in America, Kragt said. Without students learning English, graduating high school and going on to college, refugees are apt to stay in an “enclosed community” apart from the broader society.

But in schools where there may be 21 foreign languages in one classroom, teaching is “a pretty daunting task,” she noted.

Her center provides after-school tutoring and other programs to help students catch up. More broadly, it strives to provide a welcoming culture for refugee resettlement in West Michigan. When Gov. Rick Snyder last fall sought to pause the state’s acceptance of Syrian refugees due to terrorism concerns, Kragt accused him of “leading with fear rather than reason” in a teleconference sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan.

“We have a strong history of welcoming refugees (in West Michigan), and a lot of people are informed about refugee resettlement,” she said. “That’s allowing us to maybe push back on some of the misinformation that’s out there.”

Just walking the halls at East Kentwood High School helps dispel fears and promote acceptance. Students are often dressed in native clothes, speak their native languages and celebrate their traditional holidays, all while navigating the U.S. education system.

Burundi refugee student Gloria Tungabose gets her lunch
Burundi refugee student Gloria Tungabose gets her lunch

Wolohan said refugee students and the perspectives they bring add to the richness of the district.

“It’s an education you can’t buy,” said Wolohan, who’s had four children in Kentwood Public Schools. “What we have here doesn’t exist anywhere else. I think this is one of the most diverse schools in the country. For my own children, it’s given them more acceptance of other cultures and also a world view. It brings the world to them.”

That kind of attitude is one of the district’s core values, Assistant Superintendent Johnson said.

“We believe that our district reflects the real world. As students prepare to live and compete in a global market place, they will fully appreciate the rich differences among their peers, understand the value of diversity and be equipped to successfully interact within a multicultural society.”

SNN reporter Charles Honey contributed to this article.


SNN Story on Newcomer Program

West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center

Bethany Christian Services Refugee andImmigrant Services

Lutheran Social Services of Michigan

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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