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Welcoming Our Newest, Most Vulnerable Students, Families

Tula Khadka remembers what it was like all too well. Arriving in West Michigan from Nepal in 2013, he didn’t know much English or the ways of his new country. He struggled to learn both in his freshman year at Ottawa Hills High.

Then he discovered the West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center. His English improved dramatically in summer and after-school classes there, alongside other newly arrived refugee students from around the world.

“Learning about their other countries and cultures, sharing our stories – it was a really fun time,” said Tula, 18, who will be a senior this fall at East Kentwood High.

The help he received then is why Tula is back at the center this summer, helping 60-plus recently arrived refugee students get ready for school in the fall. He is one of several volunteers teaching English and basic classroom skills to these new Americans at the WMRECC facility in Kentwood.

“They’re all focusing on learning, like I did,” said Tula, as young boys kicked a soccer ball in the parking lot behind him. “I really want to help other students like them, because I know – I’ve been in their place.”

Then he went to show off his soccer skills to the boys.

Annelise, from Uganda, identifies words on a grid with help from volunteer Qusay Omran

Needed More than Ever

Soccer, jump rope and other games are some of the ways the center tries to help students adjust after the often-traumatic experiences that brought them to the U.S. Tula’s father is Bhutanese, his family one of thousands who came through Nepal refugee camps from Bhutan. Other students come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan, among other countries.

Field trips to Blandford Nature Center, the Grand Rapids Public Museum and other places also have been part of the seven-week summer program, as a way to help “kids be kids,” said Susan Kragt, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“Part of what the program does is just create a safe environment, a place for kids to take a breath and be with kids who look like them and have been through the same experience,” Kragt said, adding many children struggle with culture shock, anxiety and depression.

Founded in 2006 by immigrants and refugees, the center aims to help children and families gain skills necessary to integrate seamlessly into the community. A key piece is supporting students to help them do well in school through family orientations, teacher training and student peer support groups. Most students go to Kentwood or Grand Rapids Public Schools, along with districts including Godwin Heights, Godfrey-Lee and Forest Hills.

The center’s services are needed more than ever, as West Michigan is seeing an influx of families from the 10,000 additional refugees approved for entry into the U.S. this year. About 900 are expected to resettle in West Michigan in the next year.

For boys like Giovani, playing soccer helps them just be a child again

Students Have Much to Offer

The summer program serves students who arrived late in the school year or in recent weeks. Although teaching some literacy and math, much of the content is about basic classroom coping skills: how to use the bathroom, say your name or stand up when the teacher tells you to.

“Many of them have had some education, but it’s usually been interrupted and it’s very, very different” from U.S. schools, Kragt said, adding the center will also help parents enroll their children in school and make sure they know how to take the bus.

All of it goes toward making children and families feel welcome here, in sharp contrast to the anti-immigrant rhetoric and fear of terrorism dominating our national politics, Kragt notes.

“There’s just a lot of misinformation about who refugees are – the difference between the perpetrator of the violence refugees are fleeing from and the refugees themselves,” Kragt said. “These are the people who are fleeing those attacks. We’re on the same side.”

Far from being a drain on schools, she asserts, refugee children are promising students. Their multiple languages and bicultural experience enhance critical thinking and creativity, and they bring a global perspective from which we can benefit, she said.

“These kids we work with, the parents we work with, they’re strong people,” she added. “They have survived a lot. They have a lot to offer.

“Every student that comes through our doors knows they’re welcome and important. We believe every single life is a gift to us.”

Volunteer Ruthie Voetberg helps Emerence spell m-o-u-t-h

‘Make Them Feel Like Home’  

Though designed with input from teachers, the summer program is run by trained volunteers. One of them is Sri Soekarmoen McCarthy, who on a recent morning played patty-cake outside the center with Sarah, a 7-year-old from Congo. McCarthy, a retired Amway employee originally from Indonesia, said she wanted to help other immigrants like herself.

“It’s not necessarily that they want to be here,” McCarthy said, sitting in the shade of a tree with other volunteers and children. “The least we can do is welcome them and make them feel like home. They are the future of a better America.”

Inside, students worked on lessons in four classrooms. In one, two girls, Bhawana from Nepal and Annelise from Uganda, competed to see who could find the most words in a grid. “I have 24,” Annelise said proudly.

She said her family came to the U.S. so she and her siblings could get a good education. She felt she’s gotten one so far, learning to pronounce words and much about her new country’s history.

“I like United States, because it cares about children’s lives,” said Annelise, 11, who’s entering sixth grade at Pinewood Middle School.

Nearby, 12-year-old Divin said he much preferred school and life here to Uganda, where his family were refugees from Congo. He spoke of muddy roads, traffic jams and people being robbed and beaten. Here, he said, he can take a bus instead of walking to school. Better yet, “I’ve learned how to read some books.

“It’s friendly, it’s nice,” Divin said of West Michigan. “Life is simple.”


West Michigan Refugee Education & Cultural Center

Refugee Students Leave Terror Behind, Look to Future

Volunteer Ruthie Voetberg reads to Cheuuy and Emerence as Emma Richter, another volunteer, looks on
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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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