By Melixza Gonzalez
Today, the Massachusetts Mutual Assistance Association (MAA) Coalition, a statewide network of ethnic refugee organizations, along with the Office for Refugees and Immigrants and several voluntary resettlement agencies, will host a World Refugee Day event at the State House, in the Great Hall at 11:00 am. The event will celebrate the Commonwealth’s vibrant refugee community with a special tribute to educators who have nurtured the potential of refugee students much like Rashidi, a 17-year-old from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Rashidi is a friendly, engaging teenager with a bright smile and an easygoing demeanor.
As is typical of many boys his age, Rashidi likes to play soccer and spend time with his friends where he lives in Worcester. Rashidi’s own journey, however, has been anything but typical and his advancement through education has been a remarkable milestone.
Rashidi was born in the DRC during a time of intense civil strife in that African country. He lost both of his parents at a young age. Raised by an aunt and uncle, the family was forced to flee their homeland and eventually landed in a refugee camp in Tanzania in 2002. Rashidi lived in the camp for seven years – his schooling was sporadic and his future uncertain.
In 2009, at the age of 15, Rashidi came to Massachusetts as an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor, under a special program created by the U.S. government to help orphaned refugees, and placed into foster care through Lutheran Social Services of New England.
Rashidi began his new life in Massachusetts facing significant cultural and linguistic barriers, but he was soon placed in the ninth grade at the New Citizens Center in Worcester, a school that specializes in helping students from other countries with academic gaps. When he entered New Citizens, Rashidi did not speak English. This spring, he tested in the top third in the state on the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment test. Now a straight-A student, Rashidi is an avid learner who takes pride in his work and wants to earn the chance to attend college.
Public education has been a saving grace for Rashidi as well as for many other refugee youth across Massachusetts. Public schools are often the first place where refugee children start their new lives toward their American Dreams. With great enthusiasm for their educational journey refugee students strengthen the future of both their families and the fabric of the Commonwealth.
Monday, June 20 was World Refugee Day, an opportunity for the global community to remember the plight of refugees around the world – people and families who have been forced from their native countries because of wars or fears of persecution. Last year, Massachusetts welcomed more than 2,400 refugees, most of them from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia and Haiti.
This year, in honor of World Refugee Day, ORI recognizes the importance of education for refugee youth in the Commonwealth and the vital roles that staff within our schools – from teachers to administrators – play in helping our refugee youth adjust to the American educational system.
Here are some of the programs ORI has to support refugee students and parents and their new communities:
· Refugee School Impact, which addresses the impact of refugee children on local public school districts by providing support to identify and address gaps in services to middle-and high-school age refugee children and to provide training and cultural programs for schools.
· Refugee Youth Adjustment Services, which provide youth with a variety of opportunities that facilitate community and school adjustment by assisting refugee youth to succeed through after-school and weekend programs, parent liaison services, tutoring services that address social adjustment, academic, recreational, cultural enrichment and/or intergenerational needs of refugee youth.
· Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, a unique partnership among ORI, the Department of Children and Families and Lutheran Social Services to help refugee children who arrive in the U.S. with no parent or guardian. The program places minors in foster care with specially-trained local families and provides culturally and linguistically appropriate social services support.
As part of today’s World Refuge Day event, eight schools from communities throughout the Commonwealth will be honored for their exceptional commitment to the academic success and integration of refugee students. The following schools have been nominated to receive citations on this special day:
Classical High School, Lynn
Coburn Elementary School, West Springfield
Elm Park Community School, Worcester
J.G. Pyne Arts Magnet School, Lowell
Lilla G. Frederick Middle School, Dorchester
New Citizens Program, Worcester
Westfield High School, Westfield
White Street Elementary, Springfield
These are just a few of the dynamic organizations that work tirelessly to assist our refugee youth in rebuilding their new lives here and begin to tap into their own talents and promise. For Rashidi, languages are of particular interest to him as he speaks his native tribal dialect and Swahili and is now studying French. He is currently considering a future as an interpreter and this fall he will begin his junior year at South High in Worcester. Whatever path he chooses, Rashidi has demonstrated tremendous fortitude, tenacity, and above all, grace.
To learn more about ORI programs, visit: www.mass.gov/ori
Melixza Gonzalez is chief of staff at the Office for Refugees and Immigrants
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