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Opening Arms: Preschool Scholarships for Refugee Kids

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Written by Joshua Okada, Resource Development Intern at the IRC in Charlottesville.

A Bhutanese refugee, forced out of his country at the age of 18, had never imagined a future with a place to call home and a quality education for his daughter. A couple decades later that same refugee, Geeta Ghimirey, finds himself now as a caseworker for the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville and a parent, of one of five families, to have benefited thus far from a collaborative program between the IRC and the University Montessori School (UMS).

Every three to four years, a client from the IRC in Charlottesville is granted a full-scholarship from UMS to attend the private school, which runs up to kindergarten. The school prides itself on its alliterative “Montessori Method,” catering to each student’s personal needs, and has launched refugee youth up towards bright futures.

Nancy Corwith has been a teacher at UMS for over 20 years and is a firm believer in the school’s philosophy. “[The Montessori Model] is a child centered, child directed model of education,” Corwith said. “The wonder of it all is we use observation as guides and provide an environment that is of interest to every child.”

Beneficial to children with English as second languages, the UMS-IRC partnership has provided the opportunity for young refugees from different backgrounds and skills to learn in a comfortable, thriving setting. “One of my strong memories is of a girl who came to our school, I think through the IRC, but she did not have any grasp of English and she was frightened, scared, and had a hard adjustment period,” Corwith said. “But in a very short time, she was drawn to the different materials in our classroom and found comfort in those works.”

Ghimirey, whose daughter is now nearing the end of her first year at UMS, has seen profound developmental growth in her. She is beginning to learn to write in English and has experienced changes in behavior, he says. Farah Ibrahim, a former caseworker at the IRC in Charlottesville, witnessed similar blossoming effects in her daughter. 

Farah and her daughter go trick-or-treating on the Lawn at UVA. Photo: IRC

A refugee from Iraq, Ibrahim came to the U.S. about ten years ago with her then 15-month-old daughter. Her husband was not able to come to the country with them, leaving Ibrahim alone with her daughter to navigate through the resettlement process. Upon arrival, Ibrahim fortunately received childcare subsidiaries for her daughter, easing the transition period into the U.S. Later, her child was awarded the UMS scholarship, opening doors for her daughter’s academic future and Ibrahim’s job prospects. “I was excited about the fact it was offering full-time childcare for me,” Ibrahim said. “It was a big deal because I needed that as my husband was in the process coming here, and I was losing my childcare assistance through social services. It was a great transition to income security, and I noticed that [from] the first few months… [my daughter] was changing into someone. She was not only changing academically, but her character evolved.” 

The UMS-IRC collaboration also enriches the classroom environment and deepens the interactions between parents who would have otherwise not been in contact. “We had a little fellow from an Arab country who brought in his prayer rug to share and had a little CD player where he had his call to prayer,” Corwith said. “He rolled out his prayer rug. All the students were fascinated, as we all were, and he showed how he prayed. Things like that stay with me, stay with the children forever.”

Both longtime-Charlottesville youth and young refugees have the opportunity to learn from one another and raise each other up. Corwith’s waves of students have gained a deep cultural awareness of the world beyond Charlottesville and Virginia, while Ibrahim’s daughter successfully secured a spot in an elementary school gifted program. Ghimirey caught a glimpse of bright beginnings for his budding daughter, noticed through her choice of song. “While I was driving her to school, she started singing [a] song,” Ghimirey said. “It made me proud that she is in that school. [The song] talks about bringing peace into the world.”

The UMS-IRC collaboration has nurtured individuals and a sense of community in the past few years since its establishment. With the building of empathy, respect, and trust, one could only hope for many more years of it to come.