Cougars help refugees transition

Students in the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees program have been hard at work helping refugee children adapt to a new life in America.

“The only thing they have contact with is a school environment and other American kids,” said senior Cecilia Cai, the chapter’s president. “But they tend to stay with kids who speak their own language so it’s hard to get them to open up. PAIR is here to fill that gap.”

In 2010, Cai joined Rice University’s nonprofit refugee service organization as an after-school community volunteer. But after a few months at the Rice chapter, she wanted to bring the program to her own school.

That fall, Cai and her friends established the UH chapter of PAIR, and have been providing academic and socially enriching activities to refugee students at Las Americas Middle School in HISD ever since.

Twice a week, volunteers mentor, teach and play games with students at Las Americas, a school exclusive to recent immigrants. The program, known as Global Learners, is for middle school students and is one of three PAIR programs available to Houston’s young refugees.

“Many of these children have experienced disrupted education,” said board president Renee Stern. “Some refugee camps are well-organized and provide education, but some don’t have schools.”

Global Learners Las Americas is host to over 40 kids whose families have fled persecution and poverty in their native countries and come to Houston in search of social tolerance and economic opportunities. From the largest to smallest demographics, students come from Iraq, Eritrea, a range of other African countries and Burma. At only 11 to 14 years old, most of them know life only as being raised in refugee camps.

Seventh-grader Razqia Atluma, who recently emigrated from Iraq, said she misses her family back home, but she likes learning in America.

“Living in America is good,” she said. “Here, I read English. I like English.”

At Las Americas, students are placed into different levels of English classes based on their knowledge and fluency of the language. Program manager Jenelle Thomson said preliterate students are in English classes almost all day at the first level.

As their English progresses, core subjects such as math and science are added to their curriculum. Atluma, who is a first-level student, said her favorite subject in school is reading and writing.

“In the kids, the biggest improvement I’ve seen is in their English, participation and involvement with other kids,” said mentoring coordinator Kanza Muzaffar.

She said though they often have reservations with other students who speak different languages, they learn to play and work together inside and outside of school.

“The true focus of the program is about being good in school,” said Muzaffar. “But it’s also about being the best for yourself and others in the community.”

Cai said in addition to social activities, PAIR also educates the students about American culture and cultures found within the school. For her, volunteering was a matter of being able to relate. She was also in middle school when her family immigrated to the US.

“I can understand their struggle with learning English and the culture shock,” she said.

“As a PAIR volunteer, you can really become a refugee child’s mentor and friend,” said Cai. “It is most satisfying for me when my mentee greets and openly talks with me.”

Program coordinator Cassie Gianni said that seeing students connect across the distance of cultural difference is rewarding.

“PAIR is not just an organization,” Gianni said. “PAIR is a family and foundation of friendship.”

Next semester, UH PAIR plans to start a Global Leaders program at Lee High School, where most Las Americas students will go. “PAIR goes where the kids are,” said Stern.

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