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Area schools prepare for the arrival of Afghan refugees

Sessions focus on building cultural awareness

Kent ISD —The cafeteria — considered one of the hardest places to navigate for any refugee — is just one of the many challenges Afghan refugees resettling in Michigan will face as their children enter the school system.

Much of the food – think mozzarella sticks, taquitos, and square-shaped cafeteria pizza – is foreign to many students not used to the blends of flavors in American cuisine.

Hannah Werth, school engagement coordinator for the Refugee Education Center

“I met a counselor who shared a school meal with the family,” said Hannah Werth, a school engagement coordinator with the Refugee Education Center, in Kentwood. The center works with refugees throughout Kent County to help them become part of the West Michigan community. “The food is different, the procedures are strange, and the cafeteria is noisy, but by showing them the food and sharing a school lunch, it helped the family with their transition.”

Werth presented “Afghan Arrivals: What Schools Need to Know,” during a Nov. 9 program to more than 50 area educators. During the session, Werth updated the status of Afghan arrivals planned for resettlement in the West Michigan community and schools. She also highlighted ways for educators to welcome students and include them in their classrooms.

Educators are encouraged to hang an Afghan flag that has no symbols (public domain)

Uncertain Timeline for Arrivals

Eyes across the world were on Afghanistan as the U.S evacuated military troops and Afghans from the country in August. More than 50,000 Afghans, many who worked with or on behalf of the U.S. government, will be resettled in the United States. Michigan, among states taking the most Afghan refugees, has pledged to accept about 1,280. Of those, about 530 will be coming to West Michigan, according to Werth, and students will enroll in area schools. The state will continue to accept refugees from other countries as well.

The projected arrival month of December is in flux. While some Afghan refugees have already arrived, the process for bringing them to the U.S. has been chaotic and faced delays. A measles outbreak caused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pause resettlement efforts. Also, because of the abruptness of the evacuation, many refugees still need to acquire official paperwork to resettle.

“If I leave you with nothing else, avoid having students write journey narratives of how they got to the United States.”

–  Hannah Werth, a school engagement coordinator with Refugee Education Center

Most refugees will wait to be assigned a flight. While those with financial means may book their own flights, they must first fulfill a slate of requirements including a 21-day quarantine for measles; vaccinations, including for COVID-19; and possession of the needed documents.

The slowdown has given time for agencies to help communities prepare, which is especially necessary due to lack of available housing, Werth said. Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas are leading the refugee resettlement in West Michigan.

There’s also preparation at a state level. Recently, the State of Michigan set aside about $500,000 to help with temporary housing with the plan to rent Airbnbs, hotels and similar living arrangements. Because of this plan, refugees could be entering communities and school districts that have never had them before, Werth said.

Kent ISD is helping school districts prepare by hosting four sessions with the Refugee Education Center designed to provide background and local context to help with enrollment, engagement and welcoming the students and families.

Casey Gordon, supervisor of special populations and McKinney-Vento grant coordinator for Allegan and Kent counties

“The intent of these sessions is to help our school leaders learn where we may need to build linguistic, cultural, and instructional capacity to welcome our new students to U.S. schools,” said Casey Gordon, supervisor of special populations and McKinney-Vento grant coordinator for Allegan and Kent counties. “We greatly appreciate our partnership with the Refugee Education Center and their continued support of students and families who have resettled in Kent County.”

More than 200 participants have attended the sessions, coming from Kent and several other counties, and as far away as New York and Indiana.

Welcoming New Arrivals

Werth shared information about how to welcome Afghan students, things to be aware of concerning culture and history and practices to embrace and avoid.

Suggestions include:

  • Present material about 9/11 and current affairs related to Afghanistan with sensitivity to refugees in their class. “The children coming over were born after 9/11,” Werth said. “These children have never lived under Taliban rule, but have only lived with U.S. occupation and the uncertainties within their country. For that reason, they have a widely different view of the U.S. due to those experiences.

“Remember that the student in your room will have been in a video about the evacuation or in the corner of a picture,” Werth said. “The families will have experienced this firsthand.”

  • Students should be allowed to write and talk about their experiences by choice, not for an assignment. It can be very uncomfortable for a child to be forced to write about a traumatic event, read it to peers or be graded on it.

“If I leave you with nothing else, avoid having students write journey narratives of how they got to the United States,” Werth said. Instead, let the discussion happen organically, she advised. The student can decide when he or she wants to talk or write about their experiences.

  • School systems and facilities in Afghanistan are much different than in the U.S., and educators can help families by knowing those differences. Afghan schools are free to attend, but families have to pay for transportation, school supplies and uniforms. There are no bathrooms in Afghan schools, which can be challenging for growing girls.

Werth encourages staff to take families on a tour of their school building that includes the classroom, bathrooms and cafeteria. They should discuss what services and items are provided by the school, such as transportation and school supplies. Also discuss with families how American schools are structured by grade level.

  • Afghans are used to working collectively, she said. “A teacher hands out a test to her class,” Werth said. “There are four Afghan students in the class who huddle together and work on the exam together and will turn in one beautifully done test to the teacher.”

Educators can encourage group work by offering assignments students can do together and by educating them about assignments and tests that must be done independently, she said. A passing grade in Afghanistan is 40 out of 100, so teachers should make class expectations clear.

  • Just like Bostonians have a unique accent and the South has a certain style of cooking, Afghanistan has regional customs and traditions. Unlike the United States, Afghanistan has no common infrastructure — hence the lack of immunization against the measles — so the different regions do not blend. There are a variety of cultural traditions, such as language, which families want to maintain as part of their identity. When possible, Werth said, follow the family or student’s lead.

“If a student says they speak Dari and Persian (which are the same language), say ‘Great, you speak two languages, now let’s learn English,’” she said, adding that learning when to have a discussion about a specific topic and when to know how to move forward is important. “For example, if a student says I speak Farsi, then you are going to want to know which one, Afghan or Iranian, so you can request the right interpreter,” Werth said.

  • Educators may feel overwhelmed, but families – learning a new language and finding work along with helping their children adjust – might feel twice as overwhelmed.

Werth suggested focusing on school first and introducing other school-related programs, such as parent organizations, at a later time. Basically, take one day at a time, she said.

“The children coming over were born after 9/11. These children have never lived under Taliban rule but have only lived with U.S. occupation and the uncertainties within their country. For that reason, they have a widely different view of the U.S. due to those experiences.”

–  Hannah Werth, a school engagement coordinator with Refugee Education Center
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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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