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What issues are involved in educating the children of refugees?

By Ariana Bacle and Rose Conry | November 30th, 2010

[Read the full profile at Damodhar Dhakal: Finding the time to adjust in the States]

Yamuna Dhakal started kindergarten in September. She knows her ABCs and how to work an iPhone. For the most part, she enjoys going to school.

But this 5-year-old isn’t the typical Chicagoan student. Born in a refugee camp in Nepal, Yamuna moved here with her father, Damodhar, and mother in March 2009. Although Damodhar speaks English well, Nepali is the language of choice at the Dhakal home, making it hard sometimes for Yamuna to communicate with her peers at school.

“Language is a major barrier to communication between school and home,” according to an Illinois Board of Education report addressing refugee and immigrant education. Even though many refugee families are bilingual, the children often have trouble fully integrating themselves into an English-speaking environment.

Merle Greene, a college readiness coordinator at the International Institute of Minnesota, an agency that serves refugees and immigrants in the Twin Cities, says she thinks a major obstacle for refugee children is that they don’t hear as much English at home as other families.

“Some struggle because children in an English-speaking home pick up a large range of passive vocabulary from their parents,” Greene says.

Though it may be more difficult for refugee children to adjust to a learning environment in which English is the dominant language, Greene says that the positive benefits of being bilingual often outweigh the negative.

“It may take refugee children longer to develop language,” Greene says, “but they develop a more complex way to understand it.”

Despite the language barrier, refugee students are often enthusiastic about going to school.

“Even if she has a doctor’s appointment, after seeing the doctor, she wants to go to school,” Dhakal says of his daughter. “She is very interested in the school all the time.”

Greene has witnessed similar attitudes toward learning across refugee communities.

“This is a population that is just hungry for knowledge. You are not going to see generation after generation in poverty,” she says. “These folks are going to climb fast.”

Still, adjusting to the learning environment presents its share of challenges.

After spending time in refugee camp schools, many children struggle to understand the ins and outs of American classrooms. For some, peer collaboration and more lenient teachers make the class seem chaotic and harder for them to excel at first.

“When you are raised in an environment where everything is very rigid and you get to someplace that’s not, it’s easy to think there are no rules,” Greene says. “It takes a lot of observation and time for those kids to figure out, there are rules.”

Other differences between the educational systems of the refugee camps and the United States hinder some children’s progress after resettlement. In many other parts of the world, schools do not place a strong emphasis on critical learning skills; instead they stress rote memorization.

“When you have been taught your whole life you’re not supposed to question a teacher, and you’re not supposed to question the facts that you’re reading, higher education becomes really challenging because you have to do all these tasks that your culture has never taught you to do,” Greene explains.

Unlike older refugee children, Yamuna never experienced formal education in a camp so she does not face these setbacks. However, there are other difficulties standing in the way of success.

In the United States, parental involvement in children’s education often leads to positive results in the classroom. From helping with homework to reading bedtime stories, many parents take an active role in their children’s education.

However, many refugee parents, including Yamuna’s mother and father, work long hours, making their involvement difficult.

“If we have time then we can give it to our baby, but you know, I am busy with a job, and we don’t have time to give,” Dhakal says.

Regardless of the obstacles standing in the way of Yamuna’s education, Dhakal remains determined to do all that he can for his daughter.

“I want to make my daughter’s future bright,” he says.

Related stories on Immigrant Connect

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Yashoda Dulal: A mother preserving Nepalese culture

The idea of not celebrating in the camps, though, was unheard of. “We had to celebrate in the camps no matter how hard it was because the children looked forward to it,” Yashoda Dulal reminisces.

Indra Rai: Allergic to the word refugee

Indra Rai describes herself as many things, including funny, friendly and cooperative. But she would never call herself a refugee, even though she has technically been one since she was six years old. “If someone says ‘you’re refugee,’ no, I don’t accept that,” she says. “That’s not by my birth. I don’t want to be refugee.”

Hasta Bhattarai: Finding hope after 16 years without a future

After being expelled from his native Bhutan at 18, Hasta Bhattarai spent the first 16 years of his adult life in a refugee camp with no concrete hopes for the future. Now that he’s in Chicago, the possibilities seem endless.

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