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From classroom to lunch room, schools help Afghan students adjust

Affordable housing shortage challenges family resettlements

Multiple districts – For students arriving in West Michigan from Afghanistan and other global locations experiencing trauma, schools are an “incredibly important component” of transitioning to a new life in America.

So says Kelli Dobner of Samaritas, a Lutheran agency helping to resettle Michigan’s recent influx of refugees from Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops and takeover by the Taliban. Samaritas has had to work hard to find homes for about 200 Afghans in the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo areas.

“The kids have been through incredible trauma, especially our Afghan refugee children, with everything that they’ve seen and experienced,” said Dobner, co-chair of Samaritas’ Afghan Refugee Network. “Having that strong partnership with the school, it becomes a lifeline to make sure the kids are growing and thriving.”

Local school districts have welcomed Afghan students with teachers certified in teaching English as a second language and specialized learning materials. Teachers have received training in being sensitive to students’ traumas and helping them adjust to cultural differences. 

‘It’s important that all students feel a sense of safety in the classroom, and there’s consistency and a lot of kindness and empathy and understanding.’

– Kay Smith, English-language learner coordinator for Grand Rapids Public Schools

Yet complicating schools’ efforts has been the difficulty of finding homes for hundreds of refugees in West Michigan due to the skyrocketing cost of housing. Agencies like Samaritas and Bethany Christian Services, which has been trying to resettle about 250 refugees in the area, have found it more difficult to find affordable housing than in the past.

“The reputation of Grand Rapids for being a welcoming city is second to none. It’s held up as a model,” Dobner said recently. “Now we just need affordable housing to go along with that welcome.”

While Samaritas has since managed to find affordable residences for its share of the refugees, Bethany is still seeking permanent housing for many. The housing challenge will remain for future waves of refugees, possibly including some of the 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing Russian attacks that President Biden has said the U.S. will accept.

Help Needed for Housing  

For school district officials, the need to find housing has added another layer to the myriad tasks involved in helping these students adjust academically and socially. 

Districts including Kentwood and Grand Rapids have been working with the Kentwood-based Refugee Education Center, which helps with paperwork and other forms to prepare the students for enrollment. 

In Kentwood, a destination district for many newcomers to the U.S., the housing issue has created “another step along the way” for new families, said Sarah Weir, who works with students and families who are homeless as the McKinney-Vento Coordinator and Kent School Services Network district supervisor. 

In her position, Weir hasn’t worked with refugee students in past school years. But now there’s a big overlap between homeless students and refugees coming from countries including Afghanistan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Haiti and Congo. 

“Since there’s no housing in the area, every refugee who is coming through is placed in a hotel first,” Weir said, noting these families are considered homeless while in the hotel. “This is the first time I’ve been a middle-man.”

Temporary housing means more transience for refugees who have already been uprooted from their homes, often facing perilous journeys that may have included refugee camps, living in areas with active conflict and travel by train, plane, boat or feet.

‘When you come to the country like that, school is everything to you because you spend eight hours there.’

– Sanela Sprecic, Kentwood Public Schools English-language learner supervisor

In the past, agencies have usually placed refugees immediately into permanent housing. But with rents starting at $1,500 a month for a three-bedroom apartment, that’s no longer possible. 

That’s a difficult way to get started in a new country, Weir said: “You can’t cook the way you want to. You can’t do all the comforts of home in a hotel room. The things you would normally do to make it feel like home, you are in a temporary place.”

Fortunately, some families are getting housing assistance from state and federal agencies as well as individuals offering financial support and rentals through Airbnb, said Susan Kragt, refugee and immigrant services branch director for Bethany Christian Services. To offer rental residences or other items families need, go to Bethany.org/Afghanistan or call 800-238-4269.

Teachers are ‘Front Line’ for Students 

Although the housing shortage has sent many families elsewhere in the state, those who settle here are finding ample help for their children in school. 

Teachers have received specialized training from the Refugee Education Center, hosted by Kent ISD, to help them navigate cultural differences with students and avoid things like having them write journey narratives that could trigger trauma.

Teachers of English-language learners are more than just teachers to these students, said Sanela Sprecic, Kentwood Public Schools’ English-language learner supervisor, who was herself a refugee from Bosnia in 1997.

“They are the front line with these kids,” Sprecic said. “When you come to the country like that, school is everything to you because you spend eight hours there. That EL (English-learner) teacher with you is your go-to. It’s like a mom or a dad, and you’re also surrounded by other students who are just like you.

“Those EL teachers are not just the classroom teachers; they’re cultural experts,” she added.

Even things like wearing seatbelts on buses and the food in lunch rooms are unfamiliar to many students, “so don’t assume anything and teach them everything,” Weir said.

In Grand Rapids Public Schools, students are being paired as much as possible with teachers certified in teaching English as a second language and who have specialized instruction training, said Kay Smith, English-language learner coordinator for GRPS. Other teachers receive support from bilingual and ELL staff who can either go into classrooms or pull out small groups of students, Smith said. 

‘The kids have been through incredible trauma, especially our Afghan refugee children, with everything that they’ve seen and experienced.’

– Kelli Dobner, Samaritas Afghan Refugee Network co-chair

Families receive tours of school buildings and are offered bilingual dictionaries using the Dari and Pushto languages of Afghanistan. And like Kentwood, teachers and other staff pay special attention to helping students recover from the trauma they have experienced, she said. 

“It’s important that all students feel a sense of safety in the classroom, and there’s consistency and a lot of kindness and empathy and understanding,” Smith said. “Our teachers, the more they can understand that student’s experience, the better they’re able to provide instruction and support to that student.”

Erin Albanese contributed to this story

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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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