USA school system through a refugee student lens

 

American Education Through Refugee Student Lens
Refugee Education in Nepal, UNHCR

School systems are different in every country. Many refugees experience culture shock when starting the USA school system. A former Bhutanese refugee shares her impressions.

Most refugees move to America simply because they don’t have any future living in the refugee camp.

Many refugees volunteer for third-country resettlement because the hope of repatriating back to their home country fades away over time and there seem to be no prospects of living in a refugee camp.  Also, many refugees feel as if they are being locked in a confined camp territory, and simply wants to get out of that life of isolated misery.  With that being said, since there are multiple refugee immigrant communities from a different continent, there can be a slightly different reason for each of those refugee immigrant communities.

In this essay, I am going to focus on Bhutanese refugee community in America, and concisely talk about how they or I should say we, feel about the education system in America. I am also going to compare and contrast the educations and schools of camp and America. Throughout the essay, I am going to use my anecdotal stories to explain some of my points.

Even before I talk about American schools, I want to describe the education conditions and systems in Bhutanese refugee camp. First of all, like everything else, schools in refugee camps were funded through donations from a different organization.

Thus, the school were very rudimentary and had very limited resources.

Each classroom had one wooden table, one chair, a blackboard, and a few chalks. Similarly, students from grade one to grade seven had to sit on a floor and some upperclassman had a ‘luxury’ to have a bench and a desk in their classroom. The school itself is constructed with bamboo, so it wasn’t unusual to have visitors peeping through the gaps of those bamboo sticks, not to mention the odor coming from nearby latrines.

Our school supplies varied according to the amount of donation, however, on average we were given 4-5 notebooks per year and a pen or a pencil.  There was no electricity at any of our schools. Therefore, we didn’t have electronic based library or data management system.

All the school papers had to handwritten and were recorded manually in a register book. Attendance was taken on a daily basis and there could be harsh punishment for missing schools. It wasn’t unusual for teachers to hit the students for being late, or not completing the homework assignments.

Since almost all the teachers were also from the same refugee camp, most teachers personally knew students’ parents and their relatives. Majority of the teachers were underqualified and worked on very low incentives. Thus, students had to put substantial effort to learn. However, the refugee camp school were only funded up to 10th grade, so many students cannot pursue further education for financial reasons.

My initial impressions of the USA school system was something that I hadn’t even imagined before.

High schools had personal desks, had splendid resources, had a school lunch program, teachers were qualified and were generally nice (gym teachers are exceptions), and generally maintained a peaceful learning environment. Electronics are often used for data management, and surveillance cameras were used to maintain safety and security.

Likewise, contrary to camp school, American school didn’t promote physical punishments to students under any circumstances. Yes, of course, there were some students who choose to misbehave but school code of conducts was explicit and was consistently followed to appropriately handle those situations. For instance, if a student tends to create a disturbance in a classroom, he or she would be immediately removed from the class and the respective parents/guardians would be informed.

Despite the high quality of education in America, many refugee students do suffer a lot adjusting to this new systems. Refugee students are simply dropped to the school and expected to learn the system all on their own. Learning a new system and a culture is a tedious process, and gets even more daunting with linguistic barriers.

Because of the experience of getting punishments in camp schools, many students are afraid to directly talk to their teachers.

Some students even hesitate to maintain direct eye contact, since it was generally considered impolite to do so with camp school teachers. On the other hand, American school teachers have very little to no understanding of their new students’ cultural background. Consequently, there’s always some misinterpretation and misunderstanding while communicating.

Gym teachers for instances always forget the fact that when refugee students say that they like to play football, they do not mean American football. Thus, many refugee students were put up in an ‘American football team’ without any prior training and had to deal with the blame for losing the team, not to mention the ass-kicking (literally!!) they get from the opponent during the game.

Worst of all, making friends in the USA school system is very challenging. Lack of English language skills always become an impediment to making friends.

There’s a fundamental difference in cultural values and norms. Holding a guy friends’ hand is perfectly normal in camps, however, it can be super embarrassing to do so in American high school, not to mention the homophobic comments. It can be very isolating when you have to eat your lunch by yourself, or none of the classmates wants to work with you on group projects. There’s always a constant bully who would stereotype you with a wrong demographics. For example, I’ve been stereotyped for Muslim, Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern. Ironically, none of this labels accurately represents me.

Lastly, refugee left everything when moving to America.

Many parents are illiterate, and they want to have a better life in America and be a productive member of an American society. Every morning, they see more than a yellow bus around the corner coming to pick up their child. They see a prospect of upward mobility.

It’s always disorientating when we are exposed to new cultures. However, not even having a guide or friends to help learn and adjust to a new environment is very depressing. Many refugee students still find themselves being isolated, bullied, left out and socially awkward in their schools. Consequently, some teenagers get depressed.

Thus, American institutions need to realize the existence of refugee students at their schools and create an environment where those new refugees can also sense the feeling of belonging.

Teachers should be trained in their refugee students’ histories and cultural background. Many refugee students and parents see hope from American education and are only possible to maintain that hope if the American educational institutions also see potentials in those students.

Refugees shaking hands

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About Kamal Dahl
Kamal is a refugee from Bhutan and now an American citizen.