Welcoming Afghan School Children: How Milwaukee Educators Are Helping Refugees Transition to a New Life

Forced from their homes by fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government forces, thousands of families seek refuge in a Kabul park. (Haroon Sabawoon / Getty Images)

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James Sayavong knows what it’s like to be a refugee in America. His father was a military officer in Laos when the communists overran his country after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam and the surrounding area. His mother buried documents in the yard for fear that the communist government would come after their family. They eluded government authorities, and James and his siblings were able to continue going to school in Laos for several more years. The family ultimately decided to flee, first to a refugee camp in Thailand, then the Philippines. By the time they got to Milwaukee, James Sayavong was 21 with no high school diploma and an uncertain future. 

Today Sayavong is the principal of Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language (MACL), a Milwaukee Public School (MPS) just a half mile west of Marquette University. MACL is also home to the International Newcomer Center (INC), often the first stop for refugee children who arrive in Milwaukee. His school is preparing for the first wave of Afghan children who will soon be coming to town from Fort McCoy. 

Thousands of Afghans who were airlifted to the United States are now housed at the military base in west central Wisconsin. MPS officials say that federal officials have told them that approximately 500 of them will ultimately make Wisconsin their home, but the last count given was 399. We do not know exactly how many school-aged children will be in that settlement group. 

MPS officials believe that the majority of those Afghans settling in Wisconsin will find their way to the state’s major cities for several reasons. 

First, larger cities like Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay have the necessary infrastructure to help refugee children transition socially and educationally. City school systems have gone through this process before, most recently with children coming from Somalia and the Rohingya from Myanmar (Burma). 

Second, refugees from the same countries tend to cluster together. Along the interstate highway between Minneapolis and Milwaukee, in every large community there are Hmong families. 

Finally, many Afghans here are from larger urban centers. The capital city, Kabul, has a population of over 4.5 million, so larger cities might feel more like home. 

MPS is preparing for an unknown number of children to arrive. 

Retired Green Bay school board member Mike Blecha recalls the language challenges faced by Somali parents and students when they first entered his school district. No one in the district spoke Somali; no Somali parents spoke English. Finally, the school system found one Somali high school student who spoke French—a language widely spoken in Somalia, where France was a colonial power. That student became the translator.

Kourosh Hassani is the ESL Teacher Leader for MPS and speaks Persian Farsi. About 78% of Afghans speak Dari Farsi, so Hassani and others who came from Iran should be able to speak to Afghans in their native language. In addition, many of the Afghans coming here worked as translators to U.S. military and government officials and are fluent in English. While Somalians and Rohingya came to the U.S. not knowing anyone, many Afghans have contacts with U.S. soldiers they worked with, often fought with, side by side.

Erin Sivek is an English and English as a second language (ESL) teacher at the INC. For three years, she was an ESL teacher at South Division High School, first teaching mostly Spanish-speaking students. But soon her program was overwhelmed with students coming from other countries in Africa and Asia. She was asked to come to the INC by MPS officials because she seemed to have the ability to bridge gaps with students coming from these foreign lands.

She says she wasn’t sure that she could make the transition from high school to middle school, but now believes it was the right move looking back at the ten years she has been with INC.

MACL is a K-8 school, and refugee K-3 students are mainstreamed into regular classes with additional support from ESL teachers, a psychologist and social worker. The thought here is that, even if refugee children have received little or no formal education before coming to Milwaukee, the younger students are still only a couple of grade levels behind. They can catch up.

But for middle school students, the educational gap may be significant. Sayavong says that they have had students who didn’t know how to hold a pencil.

Sivek says there is a lot to learn even for students who can read and write in another language. Afghan written language is similar to Arabic script, moving from right to left and using a different alphabet.

Some students at INC come from countries with few computers and not much internet access. The entire MPS system is web-based, and students have to learn how to navigate on Chromebooks to accomplish their educational tasks.

Some students come from educational systems heavily dependent upon memorization and rote learning. Sivek says these students sometimes struggle to make the transition to instruction that centers critical thinking. Not all of these differences apply to students coming from other countries. Students from Zambia and Malawi, for example, have been educated much like students in the U.S.

There are also cultural and religious gaps to navigate.

During recess, a student asked Sivek why she didn’t wear a hijab because “You’re Muslim.”

She answered that she is not Muslim. 

“What’s your religion?” 

“I’m Christian.” 

Other girls responded “But we hate you, no wait, no we don’t.” The girls had to rethink their attitude.

Several years ago, she remembers talking to a male middle-school student: “We don’t have to listen to you,” he told her. “Men are in charge.” 

Her response was, “Let’s talk about this, if we can.”

Although Afghan children are coming from an ethnically segregated country, most of those coming to America have been exposed to a Western lifestyle, attending classes with both genders and seeing women holding positions of authority at all levels of business and government. Girls and women may wear head coverings but not the burqas that cover women’s bodies from head to toes.

Says Hassani, “They don’t want to be under the burqa.”

Some of Sivek’s fondest memories are of the students who return to visit her. “Even those who were with behavioral issues or who did not feel this was the place for them, we have students come back every year, whether they are visiting from high school or college; they often come back together: ethnic, religious, cultural groups… that is one of the greatest things.”

Many students have traumatic memories of the difficult experiences they had when they were fleeing their home countries, and of living in refugee camps. 

Sayavong remembers that Rohingya refugees could not come to the United States right away because of COVID. In one family, the mother was diagnosed with cancer while the family was in a refugee camp in Malaysia. She died two weeks after her family arrived in Milwaukee. The young father, who had a four-year-old and a second grader, was trying to make a new life in a foreign country without a mother. The four-year-old cried every day in school. It took some time before he could function normally.

For students who experience trauma, the reaction may be one of resignation, says Sivek. She remembers one student who would write about missing home. For a while he stopped participating. Then he stopped coming to school altogether. It took some time to get him back on track. But he is now in college.

The emotional toll on the Afghan children who are arriving in Wisconsin now is still unknown. The experience of being uprooted and whisked thousands of miles away to an unknown land is sure to have an emotional impact.

This year INC will have a dedicated psychologist, a social worker and a parent coordinator who once was a student at INC after fleeing her home country in Africa.

Because many of the Afghans coming to the United States speak English, and some may have college credits or advanced degrees, MPS is looking at the possibility of hiring Afghans as classroom paraprofessionals, and ultimately transitioning them into ESL or classroom teachers. 

Many MACL middle school students go on to high school at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, just a half mile away. MHSA music teachers come to MACL for instrumental music. “Students might not be able to speak English yet but they can play the music,” says Sayavong. Their participation in the instrumental program becomes their audition for MHSA. In turn, the high school has added additional ESL teachers for their support.

But high school students who come directly to MPS without going through the INC program should have a full transition program as they have at MACL, says Sivek. Today, many high school refugee students are at South Division with extensive ESL support, but Sivek believes it is not enough. A more developed transition program was on the drawing boards several years ago but was never implemented. She hopes that the superintendent and the board take another look at creating a high school welcome center.

Sivek reflects on these experiences: “We are so fortunate that we do have students from all these different religions and language groups and countries. … And once they are integrated into the program, learning together, they see all these things they have in common.”

Concludes Sivek, “We are really going to have a great year.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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