I took my first ever road trip to the Poconos with some of the team from Inner Strength Education. We were on a mission to share our services with educators at the 2022 PA Refugee Summit, a conference dedicated to informing and supporting educators about how to better educate and support refugee students. Driving on winding roads through tall douglas fir trees under clear blue skies and the bright autumn sun took my breath away. As the newest team member at Inner Strength, I was looking forward to being able to share our collective passion for trauma-informed mindfulness with everyone there.
To say I was nervous is a gross understatement. I distinctly remember feeling my face heat up when an educator approached our stand. We’d decorated our exhibition table with gold confetti, positive affirmation stickers, and posters inviting attendees to do breathwork exercises with us. Our efforts were rewarded in spades as educators flooded our table, describing the need for wellness in their classrooms, especially for their refugee students who have to acclimate to shifts in culture and learn a new language, and learn the material at hand. Many have surmounted steep challenges before getting to America and have little time and opportunity to absorb all they’ve experienced. Adjusting to a new world is no easy task for these students and their families.
“Many families may have waited years in refugee camps, with limited access, if any, to education. Even for those with formal education before resettlement, the U.S. education systems often differ widely from what they knew. From the requirements made of students, parents, and teachers, the curricula and school structures, to lockers, textbooks, computers, and desks; from school bells and fire alarms to classroom changes and cafeterias, all may be new. Adjusting to such changes in their environment is a daunting task.”
In addition to studying math, reading, and writing, refugee students have to cope with the stress of assimilation and navigating academic bureaucracy in school systems that may not be able to provide for all of their needs. Curriculum in American schools may improperly assess academic levels prior to placement, resulting in refugee students not being challenged enough, or challenged too much – often due to language barriers. Additionally, many refugee students experience bullying by American-born students because of cultural differences. Upwards of 50% of refugee teens suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in America, they need kindness and friendship rather than taunts. Trauma informed mindfulness can be a great asset in classrooms that include refugee students. It not only helps the new students, it creates an environment of calm and acceptance. It was rewarding being able to introduce educators to Inner Strength’s approach and tools, to support them in their busy schedules to be able to become more aware and intentional about refugee students and teens as a whole.
At one moment, I was brought back to my days as a tween in middle school.
I used to have a friend from Kenya who sat next to me in English class. She was one of the kindest people I knew. She was attentive in class and always shared her lunch with me. I’d give her half of my tuna melts and she would let me try a variety of Kenyan dishes. Although all of her lunches were amazing. My favorite was this stew-like mixture of vegetables, which I later learned was Githeri, a one-pot meal made of corn, beans, onions, and tomatoes. Her English was not too good and she struggled connecting with other students in our class. She would often get teased because of her accent and nationality.
One day, the worst bully in our school decided to challenge her to a fight, just because she was different. I asked her not to meet this bully after school. I offered to take her through the back entrance of the school and walk her home. Instead, she told me she would meet the bully and not fight back, in hopes of teaching this bully a moral lesson. She told me she would be okay, and to go home to my family. I walked home alone that day with her in my thoughts. The next day, she wasn’t in school and I never saw her again.
It was painful to think what might have happened to her. I wondered if she had been badly hurt. I wondered if she needed a friend close for comfort. I wondered how her family reacted when she came home from school battered. There are times I think back and wish I’d done more to protect her. I should have grabbed her hand and forced her to leave through the back door. I should have told the principal. I remember informing teachers and the school disciplinarian about the impending fight, but none of them put preventative measures in place beforehand. They were reactionary, not than proactive, by then the damage was done.
If Inner Strength Education existed in my tween years, maybe there would have been buffers – maybe the bully would have been given SEL tools to be more aware of how their actions affect others, maybe my friend would have had the space to see it was not necessarily her responsibility to teach this bully a moral lesson.
I don’t know if my friend was a refugee or not, but many refugee students have the same experience. My time at the Refugee Summit made me feel like I was doing something now, and that matters even more because of my experience all those years ago.