High school is hard. But for Afghan refugee students in Houston, it poses more than typical teenage challenges.
Many students who fled the Taliban following the withdrawal of the US military faced discrimination and intimidation in the United States. They carry the stress of leaving their home and trying to adjust to a new culture in Houston, while dealing with pressures outside of the classroom.
More than 5,000 refugees have resettled in Houston. Among them are brand new students from Houston schools adjusting to a new environment.
“Sometimes they feel out of place,” said nonprofit mentor Sofia Nessary. Amaanah Refugee Services. “Some of them feel like they have to change who they are in order to fit in and be accepted.”
Amana was among those who worked with Afghan students from abroad. The group helped more than 800 refugees in the last school year on more than 50 campuses. He was providing classroom support to K-12 students new to Houston after fleeing their home country as control returned to the Taliban. The organization has also hired Afghan refugees as mentors to provide support to young students.
But the transition has not been easy for many students. Nessary, one of the mentors, said adapting to a new country and a new school system was different for everyone. But culture shock was common, she says.
She recalled meeting one of her mentees who told her he wanted to change his name to “American” so he could feel more accepted.
Along with the difficulties of starting afresh in America, a number of refugee students experienced bullying and intolerance at one time from other students due to their lack of knowledge of the school system, their way to dress and their origin. Many students faced discrimination because of their ethnicity, Nessary said.
“I heard a lot of them say they left their country to come here for a better life, and they come here and there are other people who want to start fighting with them,” said Nessary.
Nighat Mehrzad is another of Amaanah’s mentors at school. She works primarily with high school students and said much of the bullying towards Afghan refugees comes from a place of ignorance: some children who wore traditional clothing, for example, have been harassed to dress in traditional clothes. in a way that was unfamiliar to the other. children.
Some of Mehrzad’s students were also teased while performing Wuḍūʾ (ablution) in the school toilets in preparation for the noon prayer, one of the five that Muslims observe daily.
Mehrzad also said she wishes there was more support for teachers, especially those who weren’t certified to teach English as a second language but had ESL students.
“There are lots of resources these kids could use, but the only problem is that some teachers don’t know about them, especially if they’re not ESL teachers,” Mehrzad said. “We don’t want these kids to graduate from high school and still be in ESL math and ESL geography. We want them to become AP students.”
Amaanah’s mentors have expressed hope that classrooms will become more inclusive in the future, especially in terms of ESL resources.
Nessary recalled many of her mentees telling her that if she wasn’t there to translate for them, they would be stuck.
“I wish I was 10,” Nessary said.
A Houston ISD official confirmed there was a shortage of ESL teachers, but said the district was working to ensure students had a certified ESL teacher for all of their classes. ‘English.
Amaanah also hopes to bridge this gap. Under contract with HISD’s Multilingual Department, Amaanah had six tutors over the past school year and 38 mentors who provided social and emotional support to refugee students.
“We help teachers develop the curriculum with the children while strengthening their English language acquisition,” said Megan Bucher, Amaanah’s Education Programs Manager.
With so many Afghan families seeking to enroll their children in school, paperwork and other requirements were a barrier, especially for non-English speakers.
“The challenges actually started with enrolling in school,” Interfaith ministriessaid Ali Al Sudani, program director.
Arranging transportation to school was also a challenge, Al Sudani said, citing the fact that HISD does not provide transportation for students who live within three kilometers of their zone school, forcing their families or volunteers to take them.
“We are talking about newcomers to this country from Afghanistan who are not particularly familiar with the surrounding area,” Al Sudani said. “Look, two miles isn’t a long distance, but it’s a long distance. Especially when you’re talking about walking in Houston.”
Despite the obstacles faced by Afghan families even before their children’s first day of school, the efforts of HISD, community donations and volunteers have helped ease some of that stress, Bucher said.
wrap around specialists played an important role in this process, said Shirin Herman of HISD’s multilingual department. Another department of HISD, Wraparound Services, connects families and students with resources to support students in the classroom and outside of school.
“They go beyond academics. They will work with whatever the child needs,” Herman said, adding that almost every school now has an all-encompassing specialist. “If they needed more clothes, if they needed transport assistance, if they needed hygiene supplies – whatever the child needed to succeed and stay in school. “
Herman also noted his department’s consideration of the stress the entire refugee family may experience in terms of finding jobs, paying rent and learning English.
“I don’t hesitate to try to refer them to other agencies that are out there,” Herman said. “We now have social workers in schools and counseling is also available in many schools.”
Despite this, Herman said some students thrive: Through her work with refugee students, Herman said she sometimes cries when she sees young girls excel in school.
“The education aspect makes the family feel like, ‘OK, we did the right thing by bringing our kids here,'” Herman said.
Herman went on to praise the teachers in the district and their ability to deal with refugee students, whom she said the district has worked with a lot.
“Yeah, sometimes we have challenges because kids come from trauma,” Herman said. “But, you know, those are all things that can be solved with the right teacher, with the right guidance, with the right empathy and giving the child the opportunity to grow.”