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These organizations are helping refugees overcome language barriers inside and outside the classroom

Burmese. Kinyarwanda. Arabic. Swahili. Pashto.

These are a handful of the languages spoken by refugee students in North Carolina.

Schools often don’t adequately meet the needs of refugee students because communication isn’t provided in languages refugees speak, said Meagan Clawar, program manager for the Refugee Community Partnership in Carrboro.

“A lot of times, we’ll hear from different institutions that ‘Oh, we didn’t realize this was a problem,’ or ‘we’ve never received any complaints about this,’” Clawar said. “They don’t make the changes, but they don’t realize that because it’s about language access, families can’t make a complaint about lack of language access. It kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This means the problems refugees face are sometimes overlooked by schools.

“If they don’t have the data and they don’t have the complaints, then the problem doesn’t exist, and that’s just not true,” Clawar said.

The Refugee Community Partnership provides support, opportunity development, and cultural stewardship for refugees in the Piedmont. 

Over the last 10 years, nearly 20,000 refugees have arrived in North Carolina, according to data from the Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center.

Section 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act states a refugee is any person who is unable or unwilling to return to a country due to “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

External organizations often supply in-school and out-of-school support for these families as they navigate education in North Carolina.

In order for refugees to be able to advocate for themselves, accessible ways to contact teachers with concerns outside of school are necessary, Clawar said.

“The family has to wait until the school initiates a call with an interpreter,” Clawar said. “There’s often no accessible way for the families to call and know that they’ll be speaking with someone who speaks their language, and they kind of have to wait until someone reaches out to them, which takes a lot of the power away from the parents to be able to advocate for their kid.”

Identity-based support in schools

Rob Callus, program manager of refugee and immigrant youth services for World Relief Durham, said the organization is working to help refugees overcome language barriers in the classroom.

World Relief Durham is funded by the Durham Public Schools ESL department to contract a team of bilingual assistants who provide multilingual instruction for the organization’s youth services programs, Callus said.

“They might be tutoring primarily in English, but they’ll mix in Arabic words,” Callus said. “The reason we do that is just because there’s a lot of really good research out there showing the importance of primary language comprehension and literacy in aiding in secondary language acquisition.”

Having the support of DPS to put interpreters in schools multiple times a week is a gift, Callus said, as bilingual instruction also provides crucial identity-based support for refugees. 

“Our kids have people who are in schools and are after school with them that speak the languages that they speak, that come from the same cultural background, and have the same understanding of what it’s like to be from that background but in the United States as an immigrant,” Callus said. 

Oftentimes, when a student needs assistance at school, their struggles are pinned on their refugee status, Callus said.

“Often educators, especially in Durham, are very aware of cultural differences as something to keep in mind when working with students from immigrant backgrounds,” Callus said. “But often, that gets sort of abused, in a way.

“I had a student who had some developmental delays. And a lot of the teachers were kind of blaming his language delays on speaking another language, or some of his acting out as being something cultural or something like that, when in reality he did really need some services that the school offered.”

When a student is given access to the services they need, the language barrier can come into play again. 

“Often there aren’t service providers who work in any of the languages that we serve,” Callus said.

‘Inextricably connected’ 

Catriona Moore is an ESL teacher at Forest View Elementary School in Durham, where World Relief Durham offers mentoring and tutoring for refugee students.

“Until language and content are held in equal weight and regarded as inextricably connected, there is not going to be equity for refugees, for other multilingual learners, or for any student that comes to school,” Moore said. “Both literally and figuratively, focusing more on listening and speaking skills would do an enormous dramatic shift in reforming education to help all marginalized populations, including refugees, to have a more equitable experience and help to heal communities.”

Amy Waters, lead teacher for Lutheran Services Carolinas’ School Impact Program, said because English is many refugee students’ second language, assignments aren’t always equitable, particularly for older students. 

“There’s hardly any adjustment in assignments that are given to the students. So they’re just given the exact same homework assignment that a student who started in kindergarten gets,” Waters said. “It’s extremely overwhelming when you’re in high school.”

Lutheran Services Carolinas supports refugees primarily in Wake County Public Schools through providing housing, social services, and health care support to students and families.

“Generally, I’m really impressed with Wake County in terms of their acceptance of students and the teachers’ willingness to assist the kids and work with the kids,” Waters said. “I give the schools a lot of credit for what they do.”

It’s important for educators to recognize each refugee’s background is unique, Waters said.

“They’re going to be dealing with different needs and backgrounds and so forth. So there’s no simple rule that they can just create that will work for all the students who come in,” Waters said. “When you’re coming from so many different backgrounds, it’s never, never simple.”

Sasha Schroeder
Sasha Schroeder is an engagement fellow for summer 2020 with EducationNC. Sasha is a rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is pursuing a double major in journalism and global studies with a concentration in international politics.
At UNC, Sasha is a writer and copy editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She is also an intern in the UNC Global Relations office, where she is an associate editor of Carolina Passport Magazine. Before joining the EdNC team, she wrote for the Durham VOICE and WALTER Magazine. When she can, Sasha loves to travel, get outside, and learn new things.