When the IRC in Dallas Volunteer Coordinator, Alex Laywell, graduated from high school, he and his classmates were honored with a robing ceremony. Each graduate selected a sponsor to present them with a robe, which signified the end of their journey and symbolized the love and support that their sponsor had for them. “We felt like kings,” Alex recalled. It was a night that really stuck with him, and that night served as the inspiration for the robing ceremony that the IRC in Dallas hosted for ten refugee kids on the eve of their graduation from Emmett J. Conrad High School.
Alex started working with the IRC just over four years ago. The first family that he worked with included a Congolese teenager who came to the US as a high school freshman. As this student neared his high school graduation, Alex reflected on his own robing ceremony. “We came from so much wealth, power, and privilege,” he said, comparing his high school experience to the experience of students entering the US as refugees. “Where I went to high school, you had to really try to fail. If you so much as came to class late, the teacher would pull you aside and make sure everything was okay. We were so supported. It’s a lot more challenging for these students.”
The contrast between his own experience and the experiences of the students he works with was a big part of why Alex wanted to host the robing ceremony. “We limited ourselves to just ten, but really, we could have recognized twenty or more students at this ceremony,” Alex said. He has been consistently awed by the hard work that these kids do. His own robing ceremony was meaningful, but high school graduation takes on a special significance for refugee children and their families.
Students coming to the US as refugees are in a uniquely difficult situation: on top of the normal stress of college preparation, STAAR tests, and school dances, they face a slew of unique problems that many American teenagers don’t have to think about. For example, these students have to learn a new language and a new culture while they’re learning chemistry and algebra. When asked about her proudest accomplishment, Anjana said, “learning English was one of the hardest challenges I had to face... However, I can now proudly say that I have no trouble communicating with another person in English.” This fall, she is headed to the University of Texas at Arlington - a new challenge that she feels prepared to take on thanks to the support of her family and community.
Many of the students honored at the robing ceremony were the first people in their families to graduate from high school. “My dad is a person who really wanted to go to school and wanted a better future; unfortunately, he wasn’t able to continue school because he had to help his parents work the farm,” explained Zawng. “He really wanted to see his children succeed in life and I want his dreams to come true through each of us.” The students honored at the robing ceremony were acutely aware of the opportunities that they had that their parents did not.
When asked to explain why they had chosen their sponsors, many of them recounted a similar story: they chose to be sponsored by their parents because their parents were incredibly supportive of their education and their dreams. “My strong mother raised a strong daughter in spite of the discrimination she faced. From her, I learned that I should never see the evil in others even when they try to show it, and that I should demonstrate love and respect in return,” said Yumika, who plans on studying criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Radha, another high-achieving student who will be attending the University of Texas at Dallas, said of her own mother, “she is patient, a good listener, and supports me no matter what challenges I face or how I have failed. She allows me to be open and express my feelings without judgment. She is my hero and my supporter, and she always puts the needs of her children above her own. She has stood by my side since the day I was born, and I hope that one day I will be as strong, caring, kind-heart, and selfless as the mother who has given me everything.”
Some of the students chose to be sponsored by a mentor. For example Alex’s wife, Laura Laywell, has acted as a friend and mentor to Talaka, who was selected as the “Most Improved” student in his class. He feels that Laura’s support and encouragement is what has allowed him to succeed: “knowing that she believes in me gives me strength to do things that I didn’t even believe I would be able to do. Just when I thought I wanted to give up on my high school education, she pushed me to go further. If I hadn’t met Mrs. Laura I wouldn’t be able to write an essay, read Harry Potter, or be eligible to graduate.”
The IRC’s robing ceremony at the end of May was a truly inspiring night held in honor of some truly inspiring students. Not only did they receive their diplomas, each of the honorees were highly motivated athletes, scholars, and community leaders. They were all involved in a variety of extracurriculars, from varsity sports to peer leadership and community service. Almost all of them were on the A/B Honor Roll and had earned various awards for their academic achievement. They all have big dreams for the future: many have earned scholarships and plan on going to college and pursuing careers in education, engineering, and criminal justice. No matter where they end up, we know that they will do good things with their lives, and they will always have the love and support of their families and communities.
Story by: Josie Halozan
Photography: Andrew Holzschuh Photography