International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Q&A: "New Kids" author Brooke Hauser on refugee teens in America

The New Kids by Brooke Hauser, paperback cover Journalist Brooke Hauser is the author of “The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens” — out in paperback this week.  The book, which grew out of an article that Hauser wrote for The New York Times, chronicles a year in the life of five students at the International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, NY.
 
In a recent email interview, Hauser focused on the experience of one group of courageous young newcomers: refugees who have fled war, persecution and political upheaval. 
 
The students you write about in "The New Kids" have taken many different paths to get to the United States. What are some of the particular challenges faced by students who are refugees?
 
The refugee students face all kinds of challenges, big and small. Some of the kids arrive at the school without records, some with little to no previous education. Depending on where a student is coming from, it’s hard to know what kind of trauma or difficult circumstances he or she endured back home, and often their stories are lost in translation. Refugee students leave their native countries for a variety of reasons—war, ethnic and/or religious persecution, lack of access to education, socioeconomic circumstances—and their needs vary greatly. Sometimes, communicating what those needs are is the biggest challenge of all.
 
In the book, I follow a refugee named Chit Su on her first day of school. She spoke only a few words of English, and no one in the entire school spoke her language—at first, there was some confusion about what language she even spoke. When asked, she sometimes said she was from Burma; other times, she said Thailand. It turned out she was from Burma but had spent the past few years living in a crowded bamboo hut at a refugee camp in Thailand. Because she arrived at the school with so few records, her teachers had to do some detective work to assess whether she could read, write, and do basic math.
 
Chit Su's family album

Chit Su's family album. Because she had lived in a refugee camp, Chit Su missed out on some schooling, though she had gotten a basic education. 

Photo: Brooke Hauser

While reporting, I heard a story about an African girl who entered the school having never held a pencil before in her life. The refugee students have to overcome huge academic challenges, as well as more mundane tests: For instance, how to navigate the subway system or the foreign-looking food in the school cafeteria. On Chit Su’s first day, I watched her attempt to eat pizza, possibly for the first time, with a Spork. She eventually gave up and went without lunch that day. 
 
By the end of the year, Chit Su had made great strides both academically and socially (she eventually graduated from pizza to tater tots), but she was uprooted again to join her mother in a different state. Resettling is an ongoing process, and sometimes finding a home or being reunited with family takes precedence over finding the right school.
 
What support is available to help these refugee students adapt to their new lives in America?
 
The International Rescue Committee is one of the first organizations that helps students and their families who have come here as refugees. In addition to providing donated clothes and other resources, the IRC has paired volunteers with refugee students who need extra academic support. I first learned about the Internationals Network for Public Schools—the nonprofit organization that oversees the International High School at Prospect Heights and more than a dozen other similar schools—because I was interested in volunteering with refugee youth. Volunteers from the nonprofit writing lab and tutoring center 826NYC also have helped students with their college essays.
 
At the school, there is additional literacy support for a population known as Students With Interrupted Formal Education, or S.I.F.E. The program is meant to help students whose education has been interrupted because of war or other conflict. But I’ve often wondered: What about the students whose formal education never even began before they stepped into the halls of International High? There is no term for those students.
 

Other than the opportunity to learn English, what is the single most important thing a refugee student requires to succeed?
 
Time. Statistics have shown that, at the International High Schools, graduation rates go up the longer some students stay in school. For refugee students who have come here barely knowing how to read or write, four years might not be enough, but an extra year or two at the high school could make all the difference between failing or graduating and going onto college. Immigrant and refugee students aren’t just learning English; they’re learning America. That is a process that can take decades.
Biguissa

Bilguissa is from Guinea, where it is not uncommon for teenage girls to marry and have children. With support from the International High School and her teachers, she pulled off being a mother and a top student. 

Photo: Brooke Hauser

Beyond needing extra time and academic support, many refugee students need extra emotional and/or cultural support. There are several school counselors with social-work backgrounds whose job it is to make the students’ transitions easier, and every kid belongs to an “advisory,” which is basically a group of students overseen by a staff member. Advisories meet regularly throughout the year and are like an in-school family. I’ve seen advisors help students with everything from learning how to ice skate to finding a place to live. The kids also help each other. Sometimes the best mentor is another student who already has been through, and survived, those first tough months of adapting to a new school in a new country, all while trying to learn a new language.
 

You write about the students turning to TV shows for cultural cues as they try to adjust to life in the U.S. These students also use e-mail and social media channels such as Facebook to communicate with each other. How is the resettlement experience for these newly arrived refugee teens different from the experience of those who came to the U.S. 15-20 years ago, both in terms of adjusting to life in America and maintaining ties back home?
 
I think most people can relate to living a dual life online, and in that sense these students are no different. Many of the kids use outlets like Facebook to keep in touch with friends and relatives back home, while simultaneously testing out their new “American” identities. (I’ve seen some pretty hilarious status updates and social quizzes in my newsfeed over the years.) 
 
The International High School model encourages students to maintain their native languages and cultures as they learn English and adapt to life here. How is that different from 15-20 years ago? I don’t want to speak too generally, but at least at this high school, there’s a strong emphasis on the idea that just because you resettle in the U.S. doesn’t mean that you have to give up your native culture or disappear into the mainstream. America is a big place, and there’s room for it all.
 

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In a 2001 manuscript in

In a 2001 manuscript in ISSUES IN COMPREHENSIVE PEDIATRIC NURSING, H. Choi discusses the very difficult cultural transitions teens face. Her document is entitled "Cultural marginality: a concept analysis with implications for immigrant teens. As I recall, teens may be struggling with being treated as African-Americans in public without that history while at home they are treated by their parents as Ugandan, Nigerian, or other nationality. Another issue that may cause stress is that teens may acculturate more rapidly than their parents, You may find a large body of information relative to immigration in the Transcultural Nursing literature.

Here is another example of

Here is another example of how Esperanto can bridge the many gaps in our efforts at Multiculturalism. Why is it that nobody seems to take note on this? I've sent this basic message far & wide. Allan C. Boschen.

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