By Jenelle Thomson, AmeriCorps VISTA
“If we really work hard, we can be everything we want,” Sandesh advised ninth-grade students at KIPP Sunnyside High School last week.
Sandesh is an 18-year-old refugee from Bhutan and a participant in PAIR programs. He has been in the United States for only one year, but is doing well in school and spoke to the younger students with confidence. “In my [home] country, there are no such opportunities as there are here,” Sandesh said, imploring the students to take advantage of their education.
Sandesh relayed to the students how people in his home country view the United States. “America is like a second heaven,” he said. He also spoke of how friendly he finds Americans, which elicited a chuckle from the audience. “Even when you meet a stranger, they smile,” he said.
His classmate, Flora, is also 18 and in PAIR programs. Originally from Rwanda, she arrived in Houston with her family in early 2009. She now excels in her high school classes and has mastered English. She was poised and engaging as she spoke to the audience at KIPP.
“When I was in Africa, I didn’t dream to go to high school. I didn’t dream to go to college. Now I have opportunities,” Flora declared with a smile. In answer to one student’s question asking what kind of career she wants, she said she dreams of becoming a lawyer to work with the United Nations in support of human and children’s rights.
PAIR’s Executive Director, Nicole Ellis, spoke about the mission of PAIR to empower refugee youth through education. She also recounted her experience as an immigration attorney, including helping people who were facing persecution in their home countries. She told students interested in law or any other career field, “What you are doing in high school can truly lay the foundation for the rest of your life.”
KIPP Sunnyside High School stresses, in addition to academic achievement, the importance of community involvement as well as empathy and advocacy for others. Nicole and the students spoke as the inaugural installment of the school’s Distinguished Speakers series. Geography teacher Benjamin Breault said the presentation was “instrumental for my students’ progress and their understanding of this important topic…I wish that I could take all 128 of them around the world to learn from experience, but bringing the world to them is the next best thing.”