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Two classes, two ways to learn about refugees

Books connect students to real-life situations

Cherry Creek Elementary

When teacher Shelly Severt’s fifth-graders were reading a book about a Sudanese refugee who came to live in the Midwestern U.S., one of her students had plenty to share about the Northeast African country.

That’s because that student, Dhuol Mach, has been to Sudan.

His mother and father were part of a group of some 20,000 Sudanese children who fled their war-torn country more than 25 years ago, first for Ethiopia and then a refugee camp in Kenya, walking some 1,000 miles. Nearly 3,000 eventually were brought to the U.S. They became known as the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan.

“My students were really shocked when I shared with them just how Dhuol could relate so well,” said Kathryn Smith, another of five teachers at the school whose students were reading the book “Home of the Brave.”

As a celebration of their completion of the book, Dhuol, his mother and a couple family members and friends spoke to students about what life was like in Sudan and how they adjusted to life in the U.S.

Dhuol’s mother, Adeng Chuol, fled her home and walked to Kenya with some 20,000 other children. She was resettled with a foster family in Michigan at age 17 and graduated from Forest Hills Northern High School.

“It was not easy for me,” she told Cherry Creek students. “Everything was different. I’m still learning.”

Dhuol was born here, but he did take a two-week trip to South Sudan with his grandmother in 2016.

“I like how they’re asking a lot of questions and really paying attention,” he said after he shared photos of his trip to his father’s home village. “I like sharing about my experience.”

Dhuol traveled to Sudan to meet family members in 2016. He is pictured, center — wearing shoes — with other children from his parents’ village (courtesy photo)

Lowell Middle School

Elizabeth Mines’ seventh-grade world history class is all about analyzing and empathizing with different perspectives, religions and cultures around the world.

This year, Mines’ and Tamara Hanson’s social studies students are participating in the Global Read Aloud, where more than a million students from all over the world read the same book on the same schedule for six weeks. Students compare notes and record their thoughts, then share them online with students in other states.

The book they are reading is “Refugee” by Alan Gratz, which details the journeys of three young refugees during WWII Germany, 1990s Cuba, and 2015 Syria.

In a recent class, Mines’ students watched a news clip about Honduran refugees who are fleeing violence and poverty and headed north to Mexico and the U.S.

Mines asked her class to notice similarities between those refugees and the ones they are reading about in the book.

Lowell Middle social studies students learn about the concept of social justice

”They’re both fleeing because of a corrupt government and violence,” said Avery Elmhirst.

“They’re traveling in a big group,” added Bobby Nichols.

Observed Wyatt Fuss: “It’s kind of like they don’t have a home anymore.”

It’s a tough situation that has played out across the world and throughout history, Mines said. “I don’t expect them to come up with solutions, but to get them thinking about it is the goal.”

Wyatt certainly was thinking about it.

“I didn’t realize how hard being a refugee is or how many there are until I read this book,” he said.

Having already studied concepts of social justice in class, the seventh-grader did have some thoughts about current and future crises.

“If we’re not able to take as many who can’t stay where there homes are,” he said, “we should at least do something else besides shutting them out, like send food or other kinds of help.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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