By Nat Krieger
The story being read out loud in the room is illustrated with black, gray, and white sketches. It is about a man who visits the land of his birth. He brings his wife and son. The man is shown greeting a grandmother who he knew as a younger person before. Before.
Does that picture really explain before to a ninth grader with almost no English who has arrived in San Diego from a refugee camp in Thailand three weeks before? We need a bridge and Paw, a junior at Hoover High provides one.
She’s used to it—whether she’s translating school and government forms for her parents’ generation, or helping new arrivals feel a little less overwhelmed. Paw is a five year veteran of RefugeeNet’s after school tutoring program in City Heights and a young mentor in the Karen community of San Diego. A picture decoded, a face brightens in understanding—some kids have to grow up quick.
Every week RefugeeNet welcomes 100 elementary, middle, and high school students to their tutoring program at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Fairmount Avenue in City Heights. Currently their students come from Sudan, the Karen, Karenni, and Chin communities in Burma, and lately, Syria.
Paw loves science, especially biology, and is applying to UCSD and UCLA. Like many of the younger Karen refugees, Paw has never seen her homeland. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand where she spent the first nine years of her life. Her parents’ reasons for leaving Burma are shared by the families of nearly every Karen student you meet: the Burmese army came and burned our house, we had to flee through the jungle, always trying to keep ahead of the soldiers. Months of hunger and fear until sanctuary was found across the border in a refugee camp.
Worldwide there are now over 65 million forcibly displaced persons, an all-time high. If this cohort of the terrorized and dispossessed formed a country it would have just passed the United Kingdom as the 22nd most populous in the world.
Gaining admittance to the U.S. as a refugee is a process that takes years, sometimes decades. Last year the U.S. accepted 85,000 refugees into a nation of 325 million. During the same 12 months Lebanon, population 9 million accepted 700,000 Syrian refugees.
Another day is ending at St. Mark’s and as a fourth grader is packing up his books a visitor asks him what country he is from. “America”, comes the firm reply.
“Refugees are the most vetted people who come here”, explains David Murphy, Executive Director of IRC (International Rescue Committee) San Diego. Refugees must pass a battery of interviews and tests with agents from Homeland Security including biometrics, finger printing, and background checks by the FBI, the State Department, and the National Counterterrorism Center. The data section, under Resources covers the vetting process in detail. County Arrival Reports, also under Resources, record the exact numbers of refugees arriving in San Diego County, along with their country of origin.
Strangely, there has been very little national angst over the one million people who visit the U.S. every year for pleasure, study, or business, and who are admitted with far less scrutiny. And they’re not running for their lives.
“Nobody wants to become a refugee”, observes Murphy. “You have lost everything—your house, your job, your friends, probably family members.” Once refugees make it to the U.S. they are fully legal to work, go to school, and live where they want. The targeted Federal assistance newly arrived refugees receive through agencies like the IRC lasts just three to eight months.
People who have gone through so much, and survived: our city is a place they can begin again.
“The number one goal for refugee families is education for their children”, says Murphy.
Come by St. Mark’s after school, between 3:30 pm and 5 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and you’ll see American Dreamtime in the present tense. At the same table two Sudanese girls in head scarves share giggles over a picture book with a girl from Burma and a Syrian boy.
“This is a place where the kids can be in a community with their friends and be with other people who have traveled the same road”, says Deborah Dorn, Coordinator of RefugeeNet’s tutoring program. “And it’s valuable for the students to speak with people who accept the way they speak, native speakers who are receptive so the kids gain confidence in their own speaking abilities.”
The accident that is a person’s age can be key in mastering or struggling with the new language.
“Generally speaking, the younger the child the faster she or he will pick up English”, observed Jake Young, Executive Director of the Refugee Network. “Kids who come to the U.S. after an older brother or sister has already been in school here–that helps a lot.”
While the tutors are volunteers, RefugeeNet also helps new arrivals with everything from securing bedding and furniture to navigating Social Security and school registration, as well as helping adult refugees find jobs. All of this costs money.
“We have one very small government grant” says Young, “so we really rely on fund raisers and individual donations.”
The tutoring program has created a safe, welcoming space, but worries raised by the election follow the kids inside. Students as young as eight have asked if they will have to go back to their home countries.
“I have all types of friends” says Hoover junior Paw. “Some are LGBT, others have parents from Mexico and they are worried that their mother or father might get deported. Also, a lot of students say Trump doesn’t respect women.”
But sometimes even fear strikes out. Another day is ending at St. Mark’s and as a fourth grader is packing up his books a visitor asks him what country he is from. “America”, comes the firm reply.
Folks can donate their skills or their money to the tutoring program or the other refugee programs run by the RefugeeNet.
The IRC also has volunteer and donation opportunities.
Nat Krieger works for San Diego Unified where, on good days, he fixes computers. Nights spent wandering though 10th Century Andalusia resulted in a recently completed work of historical fiction.