By Sophie Bonifaz, PAIR Intern
“Man, I hate coming here,” groaned one particularly temperamental Eritrean boy. He threw his pencil on the table and leaned back in his chair, scowling as he glared at the table and showing all of us that he did not intend on cooperating any time soon.
Before any of the volunteers could speak up, a Karenni boy his age chimed in, his eyes as wide as his grin. “Then why do you come back?” he asked, lifting his palms and shrugging his shoulders. It took everything we had not to burst into laughter right then and there. It’s a legitimate question, though: why do these kids come back? And the answer is: they get something out of it. But they’re not the only ones.
This summer I was one of three Program Managers put in charge of a brand new PAIR Summer Program, meant to serve as a transition from the spring to fall terms. It was an experiment on many levels: this was PAIR’s first time partnering with Neighborhood Centers’ Baker-Ripley campus for space and transportation; its first time combining students from two different neighborhoods into one program; and, most of all, its first attempt at implementing a structured summer program with not only games, but also English activities, art projects, and even field trips. It was a tall order, but we were determined to do it.
In order to work with any demographic, it’s important to know something about their background, and refugee groups are no exception. Our kids came from Eritrea, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, Congo, Cameroon, and more. The children weren’t always technically from the country they considered home, however; some of them were Bhutanese but didn’t identify as such, having been born and raised in refugee camps far from their ancestral origins. There were some who left their countries for fear of political persecution, while others were fleeing genocide and had seen things no child should ever see. They had all lost their homes and many of their belongings, and some had lost much more than that.
A person’s capabilities are made up of their opportunities and abilities to achieve desirable outcomes based on their wishes and needs. One might have the right to do something, but that doesn’t mean they have the capability to do it. In the case of these kids, they had had almost all of their capabilities stolen from them at some point in their lives: malnourished and impoverished back home, their families were unable to move freely without fear of attack, their voices virtually silenced, with their cultural affiliations serving as a target rather than a badge of pride. Once in the US, conditions improve, but without English, they have few prospects in the “land of opportunity”.
The largest part of my job was designing the ESL curriculum for a group of sixty kids of diverse skill levels. Some had been to school since they were very small children; others had never held a pencil before coming to the United States. Their verbal command of English varied, and many were shy. I barely knew most of them before the program started, and so getting a good handle on what they needed help on was difficult. But over time, as I helped them fill out their worksheets, as I looked over the results and memorized their handwriting, our relationship improved. I felt a sense of subtle but firm pride, as well as worry. Some of these kids were really bright but, in some cases, it seemed they didn’t practice their English outside of school.
Despite my concern, by the end of the summer, most students felt their English had improved because of the program. That’s a big deal, especially when one considers just how vital it is for their futures to master the language. Not everyone can say that they helped someone get closer to such an important goal, and I’m proud to say I did.
In the end, what will stick with me aren’t statistics—what will stick are the memories of the kids. It’s hard not to love the energetic Nepali boy that insists you show him how to draw an elephant, or the elegant Rwandan girl that takes you by the hand to teach you how to play a game she used to play back home. Few things compare to a message online from a clever Pakistani boy asking you when program starts up again, or the trust a child shows you when they begin to open up, even just a little bit, about what happened to them back in their home country.
In the end, it’s not just the work that changes you—it’s the kids. And it shouldn’t be any other way.