Art and Geometry Take Shape in Brooklyn
When he arrived in New York a year ago, Lobsang Gyaltsen had a tough time getting his homework done, so he started attending weekly tutoring sessions through the IRC’s Refugee Youth After-School Program. “When I came here, I spoke little English and don’t know how to do homework,” said Lobsang, 17, who came as a refugee from Tibet. “They helped me a lot.”
Lobsang is one of dozens of students from more than 20 countries attending the IRC in New York’s Brooklyn After-School Program, held twice a week throughout the academic year at Brooklyn International High School (BIHS). Students work with volunteer tutors individually or in small groups, focusing on math, reading, writing, and oral English skills. Once homework assignments are done, the program offers students the option to participate in Creative Arts.
In 2006, New York State awarded the IRC Refugee Youth Program the five-year Refugee School Impact Grant, making the IRC the only New York City agency with a specific mandate to support refugee students. The after-school program at BIHS has been running since 2008, when an average of 10 students dropped by for the weekly sessions. The program has grown every year since then. Last year, 13 volunteers tutored 76 students from 28 countries.
While the program was originally designed to only serve refugee and asylee youth, it is now open to all immigrant students. “The students definitely look forward to coming here and are very excited to be a part of this program,” said Khadijah Abdul-Nabi, Program Manager for the Refugee Youth Program. “They form a sense of identity through these IRC programs.”
While Lobsang worked on his geometry assignment, a volunteer at a nearby table helped another student answer questions about scientific measurements. “If you understand, it’s easy, but if you don’t understand, you come here, you work, and you get better,” said Ismael Barry, 15, a ninth-grader who came to New York nearly two years ago as a refugee from Guinea. “I get English help, math and science. I like to come here because I get help with my homework.”
Moments earlier in the classroom next door, 10 students participated in the program’s Creative Arts component, which is run in collaboration with Artists Striving to End Poverty, or ASTEP, a New York-based non-profit organization which uses arts to empower young people with creativity, knowledge and self-esteem. Students worked on their hand-eye coordination by drawing the contour lines of items such as green peppers and corn, before moving on to drawing each other’s faces.
“It’s training your eyes with your hands,” Slaveya Starkov, a teaching artist with ASTEP, told the class. “It’s what art is all about, really. We see things and we use our hands to transfer them on to paper, or sculptures, or whatever we’re using.”
Abouabkar Fofana, 16, who came to New York as a refugee from Ivory Coast, said he enjoyed trying to make the drawings, despite how challenging they were. “I don’t know how to draw and I want to learn how to draw,” said Abouabkar, who is in 10th grade. “I like to draw people.” Slaveya assured Abouabkar and the other students that they were on the right track by showing them a progression of her own drawings of a hand. “The first one I did when I was your age,” she said, lifting a piece of paper with the blurred lines of a hand. “And then I practiced, practiced, and practiced and was able to do this.” She held up two more drawings, each with sharper lines and a clearer drawing than the previous one, attracting several “wows” from the students.