Young immigrant, refugee students grateful for chance to live the American dream

Young immigrants and refugees attending the Durham Public Schools’ English as a Second Language Newcomer Academy sometimes struggle to find their words.

But when they do, one would find it hard to believe that many of them have been in the country for less than a year and have spoken English for only a few months.

“They have the most beautiful hearts and personalities and they’re so appreciative of the services that we have and the opportunity to learn,” said Charles Murrill, a sixth-grade math teacher as Githens Middle School who is working in the three-week program.

The program, now in its third year after a decade-long hiatus due to funding issues, is serving about 140 students at Lakewood Elementary School and Lakewood Montessori Middle School this summer.

Having just concluded its second week, the program will conclude Friday, July 7.

With a staff of 12 teachers, some of who work full-time in the school district as ESL teachers, students work on math, science, social studies and language arts and they learn to read, write, listen and speak within the subject area.

The program helps the students, some of whom have never had any previous formal education, begin to catch up academically. It also helps them prepare them for the upcoming school year.

The program at Lakewood Elementary focuses on rising third and fifth graders who are in their first two years in U.S. schools while middle school and high school students are served at Lakewood Montessori Middle.

“There are kids here who came to the school system in April and haven’t even finished a full academic year,” said Sashi Rayasam, director of K-12 ESL services for DPS. “So, this is to kind of give them a little jump start into next year and a little more time to spend in a safe environment and work with language but also academic English, the language of math, the language of science, which is something they need in their regular classrooms.”

Global backgrounds

While many of the students are from Honduras, Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico, the school district has seen an influx of students from Somalia, Syria and central Africa.

The students are mostly recommended for the program by teachers and bring with them a wide range of educational experiences.

Some have attended school in their native countries and others have had no formal education.

Over the past three years, Rayasam estimates that Durham has gotten 500 to 700 new immigrant or refugee students a year.

She said the refugees, many of whom fled war-ravaged countries, are easy to get a handle on because they generally come through refugee agencies such as World Relief Durham and Church World Service.

Immigrants, she said, are tougher to count because the school district isn’t by law allowed to ask them about their immigration status.

At Lakewood Elementary School, students in LaToya Neal’s class eagerly answered questions Thursday, June 29, about the life cycle of a butterfly.

Neal, an ESL teacher at Glenn Elementary School, said the Newcomer program is effective in helping to reinforce language and other core subjects because the classes are small.

“The lack of time and resources is a big challenge during the regular school year because we have so many kids to work with,” Neal said. “They need so much more time than we are able to give them.”

Neal said also said it’s difficult to help immigrant children feel safe in the wake of stepped up enforcement of immigration laws under the Trump administration.

“My students were terrified when the election results were announced,” Neal said. “The biggest challenge that my families face now, I believe, is the fear of deportation. Days following the election, my students often said they were being sent back to Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala.”

New adventures

Anaso Riziki, a 10-year-old from Tanzania who speaks several languages, said she has learned about animals, bugs and math during the Newcomer camp.

She and the younger campers took a field trip to the Museum of Natural Sciences on Wednesday.

“I saw a snake, a turtle, a frog, a snail, a fish and then we saw a lizard,” Riziki said, her eyes lighting up.

Milkana Tesfazsi, a rising Brogden Middle School seventh-grader who has been in the country for only six months came to America from Ethiopia with her mother in search of better opportunities.

Tesfazsi said she loves free schools, free lunches and hopes to parlay a love of science into a medical degree.

“I like America and I don’t want to move from North Carolina,” Tesfazsi said. “I want to be something, I want to be a doctor.”

Mauridi Masumbuko, 16, arrived in the U.S. in September from Tanzania where he was born and where his family lived for about 20 years after fleeing the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Jordan High School student said he enjoys learning about government, history, science and computers.

After high school graduation high school, Masumbuko said he plans to attend college.

“I think I’ll be a scientist because I love science,” said Masumbuko, who was among a group of older students who attended an American Dance Festival workshop Thursday as part of the Newcomer program.

Alireza Maui, 16, a Northern High School student from Afghanistan, came to America about 10 months ago after he and his family spent a few years in Turkey.

Maui noted the difference in school in America and Afghanistan.

“There were no chairs, no books and no lunch,” Maui recalled of his Afghanistan school. He has his sights set on the Army after graduation.

Despite the language barrier and obstacles and the trauma many of the children have experienced, Rayasam said graduation is a realistic destination.

“If we give them the right tools, they will graduate with flying colors,” Rayasam said. “In spite of all of the challenges, graduation is nothing compared to what they have come from.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645