Refugees Welcome Here: Connecticut Public Schools’ Ambitious Plan to Embrace Syrian Students

Getty Images/Syrian migrants arrive at a refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia, Cyprus
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Hartford, Connecticut
When Yana Nasser told her three young daughters in 2010 that they were only going to New York City for a few weeks to visit their grandmother, she meant it. She left their summer clothes — along with most of their belongings — behind in the house she planned to return to in the city she loved.
But a few months after arriving on the East Coast, Nasser realized it would be a long time before she could call Damascus, Syria home again. The city, where mosques keep their doors open all night long for those in constant prayer and the pious gazed at the burial sites of ancient religious figures, had become the scene of a dangerous and brutal civil war.
Uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime turned deadly as opposing factions fought for control of the country and in the process claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians — including Nasser’s cousin and her sister-in-law’s husband. Millions more were displaced.
Soon after Nasser’s arrival, her husband also fled Syria to join his family in the United States. He had learned authorities were looking to arrest him and—he feared—kill him for being a nonviolent protester.
While the young mom choked up at television sets blaring the violence taking place in her homeland, she sought to build a life for her family in America. She landed in Connecticut after a local lawyer there helped them get asylum. Everything from figuring out how to get immunization records so her daughters could register for school to learning English to securing asylum was a struggle, Nasser said.
“I also had to find a way to live here,” said the 28-year-old. “I have three young girls. I need to find them a life. They don’t understand that there is a war. We have lost everything. We have lost our house. They have nothing to do with it…They deserve to go to school and have everything they want.”
Her family did find a way to start over again in the Connecticut suburbs. Nasser’s husband found work at a restaurant, and later driving for Uber, a web-based taxi service. Her daughters —  ages 9, 6 and 4 — are enrolled in public school in Connecticut.
Nasser asked that her real name not be used because she fears for her safety and that of her children. While her journey to America five years ago was perilous, the fate of Syrian refugees is far more so today. Their numbers have exploded, engulfing Europe, and fear that ISIS terrorists will slip into the U.S. during the crisis prompted more than two dozen U.S. governors to bluntly refuse to accept Syrians within their states. President Obama responded that states were not free to violate federal anti-discrimination laws but Nasser’s unease was only heightened when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared in early December that all Muslims be banned from entering the U.S.
Nasser’s timing was better but so was her choice of location. Connecticut stands in contrast to other states in openly welcoming Syrians that do manage to reach the U.S. Gov. Dannel Malloy has rejected his fellow governors’ stance and Catholic Charities — where Nasser now works helping other families displaced by violence abroad — and the Hartford Public Schools have joined forces to create an action plan to make sure these fragile families finding their footing in a strange land.
“It’s just consistent with our values of equity and access and we wanted to say ‘This is what we do here. This is what we stand for. We stand ready to welcome you,’ ” Hartford Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez told The Seventy Four.
Much of the nation does not feel the same way. The country has been politically polarized over Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terrorist attack in Paris. About 54 percent of Americans say they are opposed to taking in Syrian refugees and 52 percent are not confident that government authorities will be able to screen out possible terrorists, a recent Washington Post and ABC News poll found.
When Nasser hears about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California inspired by Islamic extremism earlier this month or Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, she wonders how long her newfound life will last.
“I left everything behind in Syria just for my safety and my kids’ safety,” she said. “Where are we supposed to go? Can Donald Trump answer me that question? I don’t think so … Sometimes I think if we are not welcome here, where can we go? I don’t find the answer and that’s really hard.”
The president’s message has been that Nasser’s family and others like hers do belong here.
“Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims — men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families,” Obama said recently in a rebuke of the anti-Syrian fervor. “What makes America America is that we offer that chance. We turn Lady Liberty’s light to the world, and widen our circle of concern to say that all God’s children are worthy of our compassion and care. That’s part of what makes this the greatest country on Earth.”
In Connecticut, Malloy expressed faith that the U.S. could separate the dangerous from the desperate.
“Women were raped. Children were damaged. People have lost limbs. We have an obligation as Americans to do our part in those situations, but do it at a very high standard with a very good background system, which I think the federal government has,’ he  told Eyewitness News.
The Democrat made headlines earlier this year when he personally greeted a Syrian family that had been scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis, Indiana but was diverted to New Haven, Connecticut after Gov. Mike Pence ordered state agencies to halt resettlement activities after the Paris attacks. French authorities later found a falsified Syrian passport near the body of one of the suicide bombers.
“I was thankful we have a governor who was saying welcome. Happy to be in a state where we have that kind of leadership,” Schiavino-Narvaez, the Hartford schools chief, said.  “The people who come to our door are children and we have an obligation to educate every child that comes to us in the highest quality manner as possible. Whoever comes to us, we need to give them a great education.”
The Hartford Public Schools committee formed to deal with refugee students will incorporate members of the district’s policy, communications, family and community engagement teams as well as Catholic Charities managers.
The group may work to identify a school with a higher Muslim student population that has space for new Syrian students. Other questions facing the committee are whether the district will need to hire more teaching staff with bilingual skills — state law requires that districts provide bilingual education whenever a school has 20 or more students whose dominant language is not English. An influx of new students could cause a ripple in busing plans for the roughly 21,000-student district. Hartford Public Schools’ managers are also preparing to find additional money to address students’ other academic needs that could arise.
“We’re doing everything from soup to nuts,” Schiavino-Narvaez said.
But whether these swath of services will be needed remains an open question. Seventeen Syrian families have resettled in the Hartford area in the last two years, according to Catholic Charities. The nonprofit was asked earlier this year by its national office, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to expand its capacity to resettle Syrian refugees. The Hartford branch agreed to help 80 more families, but a week later more than 100 people were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks, complicating the path for Syrians entering the U.S.
“Now, there is not a clear indication that families are coming right away,” said Paula Mann-Agnew, the director of programs at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Hartford.  
“We are prepared to work with 80 more families. If they come, we’re ready.”
The Myanmar refugee community is a textbook example of just what kind of support Syrian refugee students and their families may receive in Hartford. The Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, has been entrenched in a decades-long civil war as ethnic and religious communities fight for power and autonomy in a region fueled by rice production and a large opium trade.
As reports of murder, rape and rioting raged on, thousands of displaced Burmese have fled to the safety of refugee camps in Thailand. Some refugees started new lives in the United States, including 52 families over the last two years in Hartford, according to Catholic Charities.
Refugees are picked up from the airport by a Catholic Charities representative who speaks their native language. Then they are taken to a furnished apartment, where they receive a stipend from the charity for rent and basic needs for 180 days.
In addition to financial support, a case manager will show them how to navigate Hartford: where to do their grocery shopping, how to find a doctor and make an appointment and how to select the right school for their children. Hartford is a choice district, offering magnet schools with specialized curriculum in areas like STEM or the performing arts. This school year, Hartford reported that its classrooms were about 31 percent black, 52  percent Hispanic, 11 percent white, while 6 percent were defined as other or 2 or more races.
Refugee families in Hartford are often referred to the school district’s welcome center, a small office filled with toys, books and computer stations for parents. There, the foreign students take a 20-minute written and spoken English test. A school placement officer will work with families to assign the student to their preferred school depending on their needs such as location or curriculum.
The support for refugee students doesn’t stop at enrollment.
Catholic Charities secured an annual $105,000 grant from the Connecticut State Department of Education to hire a translator and tutor to help Burmese refugee students at Bulkeley High School understand their class material. Hartford’s Burmese are mainly Karen, a Southeast Asian ethnic subgroup with its own languages and culture.
In some ways, Bulkeley High School is a prime candidate for an incoming refugee population. It’s one of the last of the school district’s comprehensive high schools, where students can choose to specialize in a humanities or teacher preparation track during their last two years.
In classrooms, decorated maps show students hailing from countries as far away as Ghana and Iraq, Pakistan and Australia. Above one map reads, “We are from all over and we are all welcome.”
“I joke with our athletic director that we have international recruiting,” English-as-a-Second-Language coach William Conroy-Longow said.
During a recent geometry class, tutor and translator Ka La Noo barely caught her breath as Karen students flagged her down for help deciphering a worksheet on different types of angles. Sometimes she translated concepts that didn’t always have an exact counterpart in Karen, while other times she warned distracted students that their parents were only a phone call away.
Refugee students in the same grade can have vastly different levels of education; some were fortunate enough to attend school in their home country or in the camp while others had to work to help their families survive. On top of adjusting to a new city and language, many of their families expect these young people to help translate for them and do well in school but may not understand the difficulties their children face.
“They have to carry a lot on their shoulders,” said Noo, herself a Burmese refugee.

Eh Kaw Ku, a high school student and refugee at Bulkeley High School. (Photo by Naomi Nix)
Eh Kaw Ku, 16, appears to have a life that would be familiar to many American students. He’s got a cool kid hair cut—short on the sides, tall on top—and a stable of friends in and outside the Karen student community.  The sophomore plays on the varsity soccer and swim teams at school, while still keeping up with his classes.
Things were not always so easy. Five years ago, Ku’s family traveled from the Thailand refugee camp he had lived in his whole life to Hartford to get a new start. They arrived in winter in short sleeve shirts with little knowledge of the new city they would soon call home, according to Noo, who picked them at the airport that day.
To Ku everything was different, from the school bus that picked him up to the teachers who spoke English too quickly. Making friends was hard at first and so was adjusting to the food. Even now, it’s hard not to miss his home and pet pig in Thailand.
Despite his homesickness, Ku is mulling the idea of going to college or maybe becoming a car mechanic.
Nasser, who is a medical case manager for Catholic Charities, also dreams of a bright future for her own children.
Her three girls started kindergarten in Connecticut—first in the ESL class but then they integrated into mainstream classes. Her oldest is in the 4th grade but reads on a 6th-grade level and was recently accepted into her school’s gifted and talented program, Nasser said.
She said her young daughters don’t seem to notice that their family has stayed in the United States far longer than they planned. And with the exception of one recent incident, the girls haven’t experienced much teasing or hostility because of their cultural or religious background, she said. She herself recounted feeling a receptionist eyeing her with an air of suspicion and dislike recently when she took a client to a hospital visit.
It was the first time she felt that way, Nasser said, and she hopes it’s the exception — for her and her children.
“Connecticut welcomed me in the best way. I really want to say ‘Thank you Connecticut,’” she said.  “I’ve never felt I’m unwelcome or being rejected for my name or my ethnicity…I’ve always felt like I’m just like anybody else.”

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