For Children Fleeing Violence Abroad, a Helping Hand

Feb 9, 2016

Sometimes, one reason that refugees flee their home countries is to ensure the safety of their children, so that they may have a future. In the fourth installment of WMRA’s special series on refugees, Jordy Yager looks at the community of people in Charlottesville working towards that end.

Sounds of kids in the hall waiting for the bus…

It’s 2:30 on a typical Wednesday afternoon and Greenbrier Elementary School has just let out for the day.

After 16 years of teaching here, Mary Plank retired two years ago. But she’s back today. In fact, she comes back twice a week now to see two students in particular.

Sound of Malin reading aloud…

MALIN: But, you can wh— en—, when you are, when you get big.

MARY PLANK: I want to tell you something. You read that beautifully. But the first time you read it, you said, ‘When you are big.’  And you know what you did? You went back and you said, ‘Wait, that’s not ‘are’.’ You fixed it, didn’t you? You made a mistake and you fixed it. And you want to know something? That’s what good readers do.

Now, this may sound like a typical afterschool reading lesson, but it’s not. Plank’s students are 7-year old Malin and her 8-year old cousin Bebak. And English is not their first language. They were both born in refugee camps more than 7,000 miles away in Nepal. Every Monday and Wednesday Plank meets with them after school. She reads a story aloud in English while they snack on apples, carrots, and string cheese. Then they get down to business: about an hour’s worth of reading and math lessons.

PLANK: It’s really what I would do with my own children, maybe after school, and maybe a teeny bit more actual academic work, but I try to slip it in in a game or something to make it fun.

Plank is a volunteer with a new non-profit in Charlottesville called International Neighbors. It pairs American and refugee families in an attempt to help them adjust to life in the U.S. Malin and her family moved here in 2010. Her cousin, Bebak, and his family arrived in 2012. Both came through the International Rescue Committee’s refugee resettlement program.

English is a struggle for most refugee parents. They often don’t understand the mounds of paperwork their kids come home from school with. The difference between a vocab worksheet and a permission slip for a field trip. If the kids come home and say they don’t have homework — which, let’s be honest, we all did — how can they check and make sure? Or how do they know to help Malin with her math skills so she doesn’t fall behind?

PLANK: I actually asked the parents, ‘Do you know what’s happening in school?’ No. ‘Do you want to know what’s happening in school?’ Yes.

Because so many refugee children go to Greenbrier Elementary, the school usually hires several interpreters, and the teachers hold parent-teacher conferences at the homes of dozens of refugee families. They know transportation is also difficult for them. But this last semester, the Nepali interpreter was a no-show. So Mary Plank set the wheels in motion to get another interpreter and a special conference for Malin and Bebak’s parents.

PLANK: I think it was important…for all of us to make it clear to both of them, that we are working together, we all care about them, and we all want to see them succeed, so we’re all going to stay on top of this.

But it’s not just the practical things. International Neighbors also tries to give them experiences. On a recent Sunday, 10 refugee kids got donated tickets from a local theater for a sing-a-long of the movie, Frozen. Malin wore her ice-blue “Elsa” dress. And this coming Valentine’s Day, Plank’s planning to have the kids over to her house to make heart-shaped cookies to give to their classmates. Now, that might seem normal to Americans. But for refugees, it’s still a world away.

And it doesn’t stop there. In the spring, they want to get Bebak into a soccer league. The group’s founder, Kari Miller, says they’re also trying to fund swimming and tennis lessons, and gymnastics and ballet classes, for dozens of other refugee children.

KARI MILLER: Most American children after school have commitments like that, piano lessons or art lessons or football, and not until they’re in high school do all students really get to access that if it’s offered by school. But I feel like it’s just such a division. It’s not encouraging global community.

Of course, International Neighbors is just formalizing something that Miller, Plank and dozens of others have done for decades. Plank told me about another teacher who for years quietly funded ballet lessons for a refugee student. And Plank herself recalled a young 9-year old girl from Afghanistan who came into her classroom 13 years ago, while she was still teaching at Greenbrier.

PLANK: She was the most amazing little girl. And I think she changed my life more than I changed her life, because I saw this child who came from such horrendous background, had just lost her father in a refugee camp in Afghanistan — gets sort of dumped into the middle of a culture, speaks no English, and came into my room smiling, cheerful, looking for work. And she was persistent, she was tenacious, and she was just always so happy to learn.

Samira, or Mira as she’s known to friends, is now 22. She’ll graduate this year from the University of Mary Washington with a sociology major and a minor in middle eastern studies. She says she couldn’t have done it without Mary Plank.

MIRA: Just her pushing me, and not giving up on me, and supporting me, and just being there for me, it made me feel accepted as equal to everyone else, because to myself, I didn’t feel equal. I dressed differently, I didn’t eat the same food as everyone else. And I didn’t speak the language… I felt different, but I think Ms. Plank definitely helped me feel equal and just accepted.

As a kid, Mira remembers hearing horror stories of the Taliban in her home country. She remembers fleeing to Pakistan where her father died from cancer. She remembers having to take care of her mother when they arrived in Charlottesville, because she didn’t speak any English. She’s so grateful her mom brought her and her brothers to America. But she remembers wishing her mom could help her with homework, like her friends’ parents did, or help her with complicated financial aide forms for schools.

Now, she’s planning to get her masters in speech pathology to help autistic children.

She also wants to help refugee parents in the U.S. be more involved in their kids’ lives. So she teaches classes to women from Afghanistan, and helps two refugee families in Fredericksburg in much the same way that Plank does with the Bhutanese in Charlottesville.

It seems the student has become the teacher. And one can’t help but think, perhaps we’re getting a peek into Malin and Bebak’s future.