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Refugee children spend summer preparing to enter school in America

Last year more than 1,700 refugees entering Washington state were school aged children. But many of them were not ready for the classroom.

For nearly a decade, a resettlement program has been running summer school in Tukwila for refugee kids to help them get ready to learn.

Inside Showalter Middle School, students are concentrating on cards filled with pictures of animals. They put a marker on the animal being called out.

“Bingo!” a student shouts. The students are playing this game for the first time.

Alaa Bazara, 11, was born in Syria. Last December she and her family resettled in Seattle. Her native language is Arabic. Initially, Bazara didn’t want to come to summer school because she didn’t speak any English. She feared “…like everybody laugh at me,” she said.

Now, she has a different take on summer school. “Like, it’s cool,” Bazara said. “Summer school is cool.”

Bazara explained what they do: play soccer, learn English, go to the library. Even though she’s a beginning reader in English, she checked out a children's book about Islam.

For Bazara and her 33 classmates, English is their second, even third language. They come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal.

Some have had little schooling, partly because their families were fleeing war. That makes learning a new language a challenge.

Stevi Hamill, of International Rescue Committee, the refugee resettlement agency running the summer school program, said previous reading experience in their mother tongue makes a difference. “It’s much easier, even if you’ve written in Arabic, which is not the same alphabet, to learn how to write in English."

Hamill and her team developed lesson plans to help students build vocabulary and math skills. They include field trips to meet librarians, police officers and firefighters.

The program also teaches the students soft skills to help when they start school in the fall. “Things like lining up, raising your hand, and sitting down for an extended amount of time, how we act in the cafeteria,” said Hamill.

Hamill said teachers are trained to watch how students are doing emotionally, too. “A way that may play out is, I’m teaching a lesson and all of a sudden a student is under a desk and visibly shaken and I have no idea why.”

So instead of assuming the kid is acting out and responding with a reprimand, Hamill said she would ask “Why don’t you feel safe right now? How can I help you in this situation?”

Hamill said teachers are not trying to be mental health counselors, but helping students get to a point where they feel safe again.

At the end of the five week summer program, there's an assembly where the younger students show the audience what they’ve been learning with songs.

Alaa Bazara’s mother, Emtisal, watches with the other parents and teachers. She’s beaming.

Speaking through an interpreter, she said, “What I hope is for my kids to fulfill their dreams. That’s my hope for kids all over the world, when they have a dream, they can achieve it.”

After the acknowledgments and praise, the students walk up to the stage to receive their diploma and a new backpack. It’s a moment full of pride and expectation.

In September these kids will start school and navigate a new chapter in their lives.

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