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UNITE - A Peer Mentor reflects on the 2020 RYSA

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Peer Mentors are an indelible presence each year at RYSA - now the Newcomer Youth Summer Academy beginning this summer - as vital supports for students of all ages. Peer Mentors join Academy teachers each summer to strengthen individual support for students, assist with Academy events, and help with weekly field trips.

Alice Khayami, a Peer Mentor during last summer's first viritual RYSA, reflects on her experience below.

A “United Unicorns” banner glistens across my screen as I log into our Lower School 1 (LS1) virtual classroom. We designed the banner to welcome each student, and as soon as I click on our Zoom link, the room comes to life and a gallery of videos lights up with students’ faces.

From the first week, every student showed eagerness to learn. Some had only arrived in the US only a few months prior; they each personified resilience. For Graduation day, one student shared:

“When I wake up every day, I’m happy to go to RYSA because I do things I love, like dance and math. I miss my home, but I also like to be with my new friends.”

The Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) excel at bettering the refugee experience.

As our sessions progressed, other Unicorns similarly flourished. One student was already outgoing and bubbling with energy; RYSA taught him to control and express his feelings better. Another was initially shy due to a language barrier, so I would regularly translate into French for them. Nonetheless, every Unicorn quickly assimilated new knowledge, and their enthusiasm shone through in their dancing. By the end of six weeks, all of our LS1 students were united.

Even better, our students had learned to connect well with others. Our weekly Friday field trips comprised virtual explorations of New York, Aquariums, and Zoos. By the third week, Lower School 2 also joined our Zoom sessions to embark on activities together in breakout rooms. Despite patchy Wi-Fi and frequent audio interruptions, we ensured the RYSA community’s connections were strong and reflected our 2020 core values: “UNITE! Uplifting. Neighborly. Innovation. Tenacity. Empathy. At RYSA, we UNITE!”

Looking back now, I can admit I was quite apprehensive during the first week of remote RYSA. I wondered how I would keep a virtual classroom of five-year-olds focused on the activity at hand:

“Can you see my screen?”
“Miss, I can’t hear you!”
*loud background noises – sirens, screaming, and TV sounds* “Turn on your camera and come join the fun!”

While our students were learning English, adding numbers, and musical vocabulary, we, too, were learning to adapt to a new kind of teaching. We welcomed students with virtual backgrounds – unicorns, superheroes, wolf-packs – and shared videos, pictures, and virtual activities. By the end of RYSA, we were Zoom masters.

I’m still impressed by all the diligent work the Classroom Lead Teachers put into preparing RYSA 2020. In LS1, Miss Marissa embodied tenacity and taught me how to support energetic young students patiently. Our daily Afternoon Huddles were sources of collaboration and bursting energy: each teacher presented their class for the day with such enthusiasm that I was always eager to participate. After classes, peer mentors met in the tutoring breakout room, where we welcomed students who continuously showed up to keep learning.

I remain in awe of students’ willingness and dedication in joining in on warm summer days. And, I was proud to hear thankful messages from parents during this unusual year: “I’m grateful my children could do RYSA. They did not sit around all summer; instead, they learned and had fun” and “My children have more confidence and speak English around the house now.”

Since becoming a Peer Mentor at RYSA, tutoring on Saturdays, or as a Student Ambassador, my admiration for the IRC team has only increased. I was proud to be a part of a team of teachers and mentors that brightened our Zoom classrooms through their exuberance. I’m impressed by RYSA operations team’s diligence and efforts in crafting a wonderful summer opportunity and by fellow Peer Mentors, such as Muhammad, in LS1, who is himself a RYSA alum. In conversations, I learned more about his experiences leaving Afghanistan and coming to New York. He highlighted how the IRC in New York was exceptional, providing a safe and welcoming space for oftentimes intimidated students.

“When I graduated from middle school, I went to RYSA to learn English (in the summer of 2017). RYSA was so different from the middle school I went to and high school that I’m currently senior at. Teachers were so nice, we had Peer Mentors to help us with English, it is very diverse, and RYSA has such a comfortable environment that you wouldn’t think you’re in summer school, you’re at home. We learned English, science, history and American school culture. RYSA’s goal was to make sure we are prepared to attend American school. And not only did RYSA teach us English or American school culture, they also supported us emotionally. When there were days that I was having a difficult time, they were there to support me. I’m always thankful to them!”

“What is so special about RYSA is that I could also apply to become a Peer Mentor. I attended twice and learned so much, and now I’m finally getting the chance to pay them back. I am very happy! I want to help kids who experience the same life that I did; I can teach them English and everything I learned from RYSA.”

The IRC has always responded to humanitarian crises and helped families regain control over their future. They have been remarkable at continuously supporting children, whether it be the 1.5 million children they provided with educational opportunities globally or the 6,000 people in the US alone that the IRC supported through social-emotional learning and academic achievement. During the past few months under COVID-19, the IRC has stepped up to provide for their families: distributing over 350,000 meals, continuing educational development, ensuring mental health support, expanding digital access programs, and keeping clients on the right track towards obtaining citizenship.

The IRC has been key to ensuring young people’s potential is not lost due to conflicts or poor- quality education. There are over 62 million children in countries whose education is heavily impacted by war, displacement, or lack of infrastructure. The IRC is consistently working towards lowering this number by ensuring students and parents are given opportunities, technology, learning materials, and the necessary academic and social-emotional skills. Today in New York, through programs such as weekly virtual tutoring or RYSA, the IRC is fulfilling that mission.

RYSA is an incredible summer program led by the enthusiastic and dedicated team of Rosalie Arndt, Caitlyn Griffith, Marcus Guy, Tiffany Parra, and Elizabeth Cauchois. In addition to their vision and organization, RYSA was shaped by a team of 23 Teachers and 26 Peer Mentors. RYSA can only be as successful as the energy put into it, and this year our incredible team further strengthened RYSA to surmount any challenge.

While RYSA was able to transform 146 students’ summer, over a million students will be entering the New York public school system this year, especially daunting given the unprecedented challenges. So, I turn now to my peers, the teenagers of New York. As you face a difficult new year full of uncertainty and discomfort, remember that your neighbors and classmates are going through the same experience. Take a break from stress, college applications, reading and writing, and become part of the support system for a peer. Just as much as you’ll help them solve a math problem or finish that challenging homework assignment, you’ll find joy and relief in supporting another. Let’s use our voices to make a change. Half of the world’s refugees are children, and while we are privileged to receive an education, remember that this is yet another challenge for them.

As the next school year begins, I hope my United Unicorns are sitting proudly in their classrooms, demonstrating their incredible new skills. I’m eager to see them in weekly tutoring to continue improving their English and help them settle into their school year. I hope you, too, will join me.

Thank you to Alice for her thoughtful reflection and wonderful work with students last summer. If you're inspired to join this summer's Academy, check out open positions here!