MS. REBECCA SHEIR
If you're new to this country and you're trying to fit into a very different culture, time can be of the essence especially if you're a young refugee. Many of these individuals are dealing with language and cultural barriers as they adjust to the U.S. educational system. Kavitha Cardoza checked out a program that's working with refugee and immigrant students in the D.C. and Maryland public schools and talked with the woman who was inspired to help these young newcomers.
Hi, my name is Ismahan (sp?) from Somalia. The person who inspires me is my mom.
MR. CARL DAVIS
My name is Carl Davis. I'm from Sierra Leone. My parents inspire me.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
Twenty students from Montgomery Blair High School sit in a circle and talk about their role models. They're recent immigrants and part of the Africa Club.
MR. EMMANUEL MINJA
Hi, my name is Emmanuel Minja. I am from Tanzania. My grandmother inspires me because she gave me a lot of blessing before I came here to the United States.
My name is Manu (sp?) , I'm from Congo. And...
Audrey Tchouaoua is a senior. He moved to the U.S. from Cameroon three years ago when his mother was granted political asylum. He keeps the details very short.
MR. AUDREY TCHOUAOUA
She had to move here as quickly as she could. We would rather not think about that.
Instead, he concentrates on life in the U.S.
You have to get adapted to a new world, almost, and it was hard.
Different food, different behaviors, different expectations. It seems as if Audrey spent all his time and energy translating his life here into a context that made sense. And it didn't help his first language was French, not English.
Sometimes I would know the answer, but I won't know how to say it. So I will say it with another word. And a student will start, you know, laughing at it, but then I would just explain them that, oh, I meant that one. Now, I know how put it in my vocab list of words. At times, it was funny, other time you feel kind of embarrassing.
Dr. Wanjiru Kamau started the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation to help students like Audrey who are transitioning from life in Africa to life in America.
MS. WANJIRU KAMAU
The kids have found an oasis where they can share their experiences that might be bothering to them.
Nine schools in Maryland and D.C. use the program. Kamau says the students are from 45 countries but share similar experiences from political turmoil and war to broken economies. These children carry the burden of stories they often don't want to share. They might not have the words to talk about what they've seen or worry if they do, a family member might get into trouble.
And they're not sure people here will understand African traditions. Matthew Schultz works with refugee children at the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore. He says students often don't trust seemingly innocuous situations here because of their experiences in their native countries.
MR. MATTHEW SCHULTZ
A lot of other places here in the United States don't feel as safe to them because it's so new. And so having other peers they can grow trust with, having people that aren't just adults that they can build relationships with is important.
Oumou Diallo is one of the students playing a game. She was born in America, but her family moved to Guinea when she was two.
MS. OUMOU DIALLO
My dad, he used to tell me, don't get too much used to us. I be like, why? And he be like, you will figure out one day. He told me that when I was 12.
She realized last year when she was 16.
The American embassy called all the U.S. citizens to come back here because the country wasn't safe at all. They were killing people, doing strikes, there were no school. I stayed home for like five months without going to school.
She arrived in the U.S. alone and now lives with a cousin. Her first shock was when she got off the plane in January and saw snow.
We have spring and summer. So it's only like two weathers. So there's no ice. But here you have to wait for spring.
Oumou says she sometimes asked questions that hurt, such as one posed by a student she passed in the hallway.
She was like, I like your top. I was wearing this cute shirt. She was, I thought people in Africa, they don't wear clothes, they don't wear shoes. And she was like, did you see an elephant? Were you living with animals? I couldn't respond to her. I couldn't.
Oumou says these sorts of exchanges make the Africa Club a blessing. The students keep up with current events in their home countries and help each other navigate challenges. Oumou struggled to learn English but last year she won an essay competition. She says, even that was bitter sweet.
At this reception, everybody was with their mom, their parents, and that day I cried because, like, sometimes I really misses them. Like, I really, really misses them.
Kamau says the challenges these students face are similar to those of other immigrant groups.
They were becoming more Americanized faster than their parents.
She also works with families to navigate issues such as spanking, dating and make-up.
Some kids just come with two sets of clothes. What is acceptable to this, you know, in school? And then on the way home, they will change to what is acceptable at home.
Not all students from Africa want to be part of this group. Many are embarrassed by African stereotypes. Others just want to fit in.
They change their accent. They were feeling like, we should not wear our national clothes because they are primitive. We should not have our own names because they are not Westernized enough.
Still, some teenagers, including Audrey, are learning to straddle both worlds, chilling with his friends at school and honoring his ancestors at home. He has friends of all nationalities at school, but says he's around family when he comes to the Africa Club.
They help me understand the school system, how grades work, how attendance policy, I didn't know anything. And me, today, I like being one of the people welcoming the new ones.
Kamau wants these students to be successful in their new country by bringing along the positive aspects of the lands they've left behind especially the belief that they need to help each other in a society that values individualism, she reminds these children of an African proverb.
I am because we are and because we are, I am.
I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
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