Over the last three years, half of the refugees who have settled in Arizona are school-aged children encountering yet another challenge: How to get an education in country they don’t know.
Violetta Lopez, the Education and Learning Program manager for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix, said at least 1,500 to 2,000 refugees are under age 18 and need schooling and other cultural training. The committee is one of four major resettlement agencies in charge of preparing refugees and their children to assimilate in a new country.
“One of the gaps and challenges we have is the accountability pieces on refugee students in Arizona, but we have been working closely with the Department of Education to see if we can add some tracking components for accountability,” Lopez said.
According to the Pew Research Center, Arizona is among the 10 states with the most refugees.
Lopez said the IRC coordinates with local school districts to create programs for these students and provide personal and emotional support.
“We need to build their trust,” explains Angela Conklin, a special populations coordinator for the Alhambra Elementary School District, where approximately 260 refugee students have enrolled in the past three years.
“It just so happens to be that we have some really large apartment complexes that are in partnership with IRC, but we also want to make sure that families are placed closed to and along bus lines,” Conklin said.
The district has been implementing refugee programs for more than a decade, but the number of refugee students has doubled in recent years.
The Alhambra Elementary School District Family Resource Center, which opened its doors last year, provides clothing, immunizations and classes to teach parents how to have a relationship with their children’s teachers.
“We have citizen and English classes specifically for refugees, starting next semester we’ll have the American Dream Academy specifically for refugees,” said Conklin.
The Academy, based at Arizona State University, helps families to navigate the transition from middle school to high school and ultimately, college.
“It is really empowering the parent, that they have a right, and they should be speaking up,” she said.
The Washington Elementary School District has close to 500 refugees speaking 59 languages, said Zlata Kovacevic, who came to the U.S. as a Bosnian refugee and now is a social worker and the district’s community liaison for immigrant and refugee students.
“We don’t talk politics in school,” Kovacevic said. “We wish them to feel safe, secure, healthy and have them build up good friendships and relationships. telling them that I understand they have had very traumatic experiences to come to the U.S., and a social adjustment and cultural adjustment from my own experience I know is not easy.”
Research shows that extracurricular activities are linked to better student grades, according to a nationwide nonprofit website designed to help refugees in America.
Aside from special programs within school systems, specially organized sports teams are now available because of the increasing numbers of refugees.
The Maricopa Mulenge FC is a local soccer club that caters to the young refugee community in Phoenix. Head coach Tim Marchisotto has years of experience of coaching club and collegiate level soccer in Arizona.
During a practice at a Peoria park with one of his youth club teams years ago, he came across a group of “boys who looked around the same age, and asked them to play with us,” said Marchisotto.
This group consists of mainly high-school-aged boys, many of whom came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. The Congo has suffered years of abuse and murder by multiple armed groups.
One of the oldest members of the team, 18-year-old Innocent Mahirwe, is no stranger to what has gone on in his home country of Congo. Mahirwe was a witness to what is described as “Africa’s world war.” He explained that “a lot of people, including the women, every human they see they kill.”
Before he and his family fled, Mahirwe was able to complete secondary school in Africa, which was taught in French. As a native speaker of both Congolese and French, the largest obstacle he is still trying to conquer is learning and improving the complexity of the English language.
Before coming to America two-and-a-half years ago, he waited many months in a refugee camp.
“I remember in the camp it was bad life, sometime I miss something to eat and sometimes the government would just leave. Sometimes they come and destroy houses and destroy everything. In our country there is no peace,” Mahirwe said.
The Mahirwe family, including Innocent, was first sent to Texas to begin lives as residents of America. As a 16-year-old boy, Innocent was quickly separated from his parents and siblings and sent to Arizona, where he would live with relatives because of the education made available for refugees here in the Valley.
He began school at Alhambra High School in Phoenix, which is in a district with a large refugee populaion district.
Since graduating high school last year, Mahirwe has started taking classes at Glendale Community College, where he’s getting schooling at no expense. Although Mahirwe is now a college student, Marchisotto makes sure he still has time to fit soccer into his schedule.
Mahirwe says he is not sure of the future but that his goal is “to improve my English and see my family.” Marchisotto understands that the most difficult thing for many of the boys on the team is being separated from their families, which is a common circumstance for many refugees.
Since the creation of this team, Marchisotto emphasizes the importance of education while providing the structure of a team sport atmosphere, among teammates who have gone through very similar experiences.
“It’s war, torture, oppression, extreme poverty, living in refugee camps … for us whatever we think, multiply it and that’s what some of these guys have been through,” Marchisotto said.
Mahirwe is optimistic for the future and appreciative for the opportunities he’s been given.
“Some things about my last life was very hard but I have changed many things, I’m thankful to be free and I’m happy,” he said.