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Suburbs take on challenge of welcoming new refugees

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Suburbs take on challenge of welcoming new refugees

This family settled into Chicago with the help of an organization called RefugeeOne.

Courtesy of RefugeeOne

The Uptown neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side is an established hub for refugee resettlement. There are many agencies there, and refugees opt to live nearby. But recently more refugees bypass Chicago altogether and head to the north and northwest suburbs instead. Those communities are discovering these new populations in their schools, and suburban educators are having to adjust to meet the unique needs of their newest arrivals.

Go into Niles North High School at 10am any weekday this summer and you’ll see a stunningly diverse flood of teens crowd the lobby for a brief mid-morning break. Some take summer classes for extra credits; some are retaking classes they failed. But a good number are here to improve their English, so they can keep up in the fall. And of those students, more and more are refugees.

MURPHY: unfortunately a lot of them have been in refugee camps. And if they were in, for example, Jordan, they may not have been allowed to go to school.

This is Edmund Murphy. He’s principal of District 219’s Summer School, for students from Niles, Skokie, Lincolnwood and Morton Grove. During the school year he also runs the program for foreign languages and English as a second language. Murphy says the district’s handled large waves of immigrants before. But this is its first big influx of refugees and there are different challenges in helping them.

MURPHY: Some of them have been through some very traumatic experiences, they’ve lost parents, they’ve lost loved ones, especially in Iraq. It’s awful. And that’s always going to follow them. So we’re just trying to teach them how to deal with those issues in a healthy way, a positive way.

Murphy says this has forced schools into a comprehensive social service role. School social workers and psychologists are on hand, but sometimes they have to coax parents to allow their children to get that help.

Cultural biases may make parents fear that their child is “broken” if she needs counseling. And there’s another challenge: a lot of the kids who languished in refugee camps either don’t remember what it’s like to be  in school or the schools were just really different.

MURPHY: When kids perhaps misbehave, if you ask them what would happen to you in your other school, they’d say well, we’d get beat, or we’d get hit, you know, it’s so different. So they get here and sometimes it’s like “wooh, look at this - nothing happens to me.” So it is a challenge to get them assimilated to the American school system.

Now, Murphy’s summer intro ESL course includes instruction on how to behave in class, how to raise your hand and how to respect the teacher’s authority. Murphy keeps on top of how well these kids are doing partly through his team of volunteers. He’s found a bunch that are fluent in Arabic and Assyrian, to call parents at home. They communicate what’s going on at the school, and relay parents’ concerns back to the district. Murphy says it’s lucky that District 219 has the resources to help these students.

But it’s still challenging. Often, the district’s trying to get kids up to grade level in English when they’re not even literate in their own native languages. While Murphy was starting to recognize the growth in refugees at his schools, refugee resettlement agencies were noticing changes, too.

WANGERIN: We were seeing fewer and fewer Iraqis actually come to our office and avail of our services.

Greg Wangerin is with RefugeeONE, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. He started to notice the difference in 2007, when the number of Iraqi refugees spiked. Now, Iraqis are the largest group of refugees coming to the Chicago area.

WANGERIN: We began to examine why, and we noticed that this was the circumstance, again because they were coming to reunite with relatives up in that area.

Chicago’s suburbs are home to established Iraqi populations. They came as a result of the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, and Operation Desert Storm in the 90s. Wangerin says there are other reasons Iraqi refugees are heading to suburbs.

WANGERIN:  They often will come in with a bit more resource financially, at least in the initial stages, and may therefore have access to vehicles, or ways to purchase a car, and therefore enabling them to go a little bit further to the north and to the west.

But that push to Chicago’s fringes and beyond has meant that RefugeeONE had to adapt. It can’t afford to open new offices in the ‘burbs, so Wangerin says he’s hired a full-time suburban outreach employee to keep in constant touch with the schools and families. He’s also formed ad-hoc partnerships with suburban religious groups to offer ESL classes close to where refugees live. Partnerships are the way suburban governments are responding to the new demands, too.

The English Language Learning, or ELL, Center is the joint effort of eight north suburban school districts.

ENG: Today at 2 o’clock, the Bookmobile is coming. Anyone know what’s the Bookmobile?

A room full of women sit at round tables crowded into the reception area of a school district building in Skokie. A substitute teacher is starting a lesson on reading skills...

ENG: Because you get to check out a book...

The women’s children watch a film in another room. But this place is primarily for parents.

WALLACE: What we really emphasize here is the role of parents in the American school system, which is very different than some other cultures. American schools really expect parents to be involved and come in, and we talk about that.

Corie Wallace runs the ELL Center. She says in the three years it’s been open, the Center has seen foot traffic grow from 200 people to more than 700. It’s not clear how many are refugees, but Wallace says that number is almost certainly growing. And those parents need the same help as other immigrants in navigating American schools.

WALLACE: We do family field trips where we do school by school teaching parents about the culture of their school, how to sign up for parent-teacher conferences, why that’s important.

This program for refugee parents and changes at the schools do cost money, but it’s money that these suburbs seem to have. And nobody’s complaining. Many, like Wallace, see it as an investment. She hopes there’ll be a return, as refugees eventually become full participants in the local civic life.

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