Operation Welcome Allies
By Marcelo Suárez-OrozcoJanuary 19, 2022
Last month, at a resettlement center in Indiana established by Operation Allies Welcome (OWA), the U.S. government initiative for supporting displaced Afghans, a woman who was separated from her mother, brother, and sister during the messy evacuation of Afghanistan, noted that the “People of the United States have a heart of gold,” adding that American military and diplomatic personnel had “behaved very patiently and justly with Afghan people.”
Sometimes, that is the work refugees do for us: remind us of our better angels. The plight of Afghans escaping the Taliban has touched the American people: polling by CBS News/YouGov reveals that “81 percent of Americans say the U.S. should help its Afghan allies come to the U.S. Many even want to be a part of the response themselves. The International Rescue Committee has seen a 47 percent increase in volunteer applications in August and September of 2021 compared to the same timeframe last year.”
It is in America’s DNA to embrace vulnerable people fleeing dire circumstances and seeking better lives. Our pliant, accommodating society has been shaped, reshaped and, inevitably, enriched by the arrival and integration of people from every corner of the planet. The Irish left their homeland during a great famine. Eastern Europeans Jews fled the pogroms. And more recently, over a million Cubans escaped the Cuban Revolution, settling in Miami and elsewhere across America, and building a wealthy, educated, and politically influential community.
When Saigon fell in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees arrived in California. Today, Vietnamese Americans are the sixth largest immigrant group in the U.S. — a vibrant, engaged hyphened American community. As they watched harrowing television images of Afghans massing at the airport in Kabul, they saw themselves in Saigon over 45 years ago. Now, they are paying it forward. In central Pennsylvania last month, the executive director of the International Service Center in Harrisburg, a former Vietnamese refugee, urges Afghans to focus on educating their children.
From Albert Einstein to Madeline Albright, from Billy Wilder to Iman, refugees have left a rich and deep imprint in American creativity.
More than any other institution in American society, schools will play a critical role in the day-to-day integration of the newly arrived Afghan children and youth. The estimated 40,000 young Afghans will join some 27% of students in our K12 schools who have an immigrant parent.
America is not unique in giving opportunities to newcomers, but our history shows that no groups eclipse the extraordinary contributions made by immigrant and refugee youth in America. Today, about half of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. In 2021, three of the four American Nobel Prize winners, in physics, medicine and chemistry, were immigrants to the United States. “Immigrants have been awarded 38%, or 40 of 104, of the Nobel Prizes won by Americans in chemistry, medicine and physics since 2000,” according to a new analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy.
It’s hard to imagine the arts in America without immigrants. Think of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, born in Latvia; or Yaa Gyasi in literature, born in Ghana; or Gloria Estefan, born in Cuba; or Yo-Yo Ma in music, born in France; or José Andrés in culinary arts, born in Spain; or Natalie Portman in acting, born in Israel.
But their achievements in the arts and sciences don’t capture the real challenges that most newcomers face. Our research reveals that they arrive in schools eager to learn English, build relationships, and thrive in their communities. However, once they settle, their teachers often don’t understand them, and few have been trained to work with them holistically. In most schools, newcomers are viewed as kids who have language needs, not as children and youth with complex socio-emotional, cognitive, and metacognitive developmental challenges. While theirs is a journey of trauma and loss, it is resilience and grit that define their pathway in their new land. A 2010 task force report on child refugees in the U.S by the American Psychological Association found that despite enduring trauma and adversity, “these children and their families also demonstrate profound strength and resilience in their survival strategies, coping mechanisms and abilities to adapt within what are often completely unfamiliar environments.”
The sources of resilience are not always obvious. A Harvard study of 529 war-displaced youth from Sierra Leone found remarkable improvement in mental health symptoms “over time despite nearly nonexistent access to mental health care.” The answer does not lie in individual characteristics. There is no category of children with extraordinary capacities for self-healing. Instead, as the authors of another Harvard study put it, resilience “must be viewed as a dynamic process, rather than a personal trait.”
Research, our own and that of others, suggests that the process plays out in a physical and social environment that involves family and caretakers most immediately, but also includes peers, schools, and communities. Just as war and flight imply a disruption, even a destruction, of all the elements of home, healing comes about with the rebuilding of a child’s social world. Fortunately, we know how to do that. And primarily, we do it through schools.
There are proven models with strong academic programs, such as the International Networks School in New York City and the UCLA Community School in Los Angeles, both of which work with large numbers of refugees and immigrants. There are schools in Europe and elsewhere our team has visited and studied. What do they have in common?
Proven models of “home.”
First, they put the child and her world at the center of the educational journey. Teachers and counselors form purposeful advisory teams to meet new arrivals. They put in place explicit programs of instruction identifying each student’s incoming literacy and academic skills. The most promising schools we observed had systematic second-language policies and practices. And, instructional tasks — writing and arts in particular — are a venue for students to share their experiences of loss, trauma, and adjustment.
Teachers mind the socio-emotional needs of their students. Above all, the teachers quickly learn to multitask. A teacher working with unaccompanied minors from Central America says, “In addition to being a teacher, I am a psychologist, sometimes a mother.” Doris, her 16-year-old student from Guatemala chimes in, “I feel this is my home.”
And in that, Doris articulated perhaps the most tried and true strategy for treating traumatized children. In the so-called English War Nurseries during World War Two, researchers discovered that even children who had been buried in debris during a bombing could demonstrate surprising resilience if provided with a place that restored their sense of “home” as a place of healing.
Given the number of children on the move, putting such programs in place could be viewed as a simple act of self-interest. Though only a fraction of the world’s displaced population ever travels very far, enough are reaching Western democracies to have a long-term impact. In the U.S., Canada and most of Europe, the children of refugees and migrants are now the fastest growing sector of the youth population. Their education and wellbeing are an imperative: Syrian children will be tomorrow’s nurses in Germany, cops in Sweden, and engineers in Holland. Ditto for Afghan children in the U.S.
If we are going to welcome Afghan refugees effectively, here are four considerations:
* Stop seeing refugee and immigrant students as kids who don’t know English. This narrow focus misses the incredible resilience newcomers bring with them as well as the social-emotional, cultural, structural, and legal barriers they face in navigating a new country.
* Provide professional development to all school staff in serving immigrant and refugee students. They are our students, not just the responsibility of one or two faculty in a building.
* Teach the great migration journeys in the curriculum. Migration is the through-line of human experience, yet the way it is taught is frequently mired in myths and misconceptions that get in the way of helping students understand current events.
* Bridge the gap between newcomers, their peers, and the communities in which they settle. One way to do that is our Moving Stories project. Students, faculty, and community members interview each other about their migration experiences.
Schools are sites of learning and enculturation for newly arrived students and spaces that can bind young people together. America’s economic and social future requires all of us to be able to work and live with people whose identities, accents, experiences, cultures, and ideas are different from our own. While it is gratifying to see the warm welcome communities are offering to Afghan youths, ultimately, it is the follow-through that matters most. Schools are where kids are integrated into society.
Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Boston and the UCLA Wasserman Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies is a psychological anthropologist. He has taught at Harvard, NYU as well as in Paris (EHESS), University of Barcelona, and the Catholic University of Leuven. The Chancellor has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton) and the Center for Advanced Studies (Stanford). In January 2018 His Holiness Pope Francis appointed Suárez-Orozco Academician, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Holy See. His recent books include Humanitarianism and Mass Migration: Confronting the World Crisis (University of California Press) and the forthcoming Education: A Global Compact for a Time of Crisis (Columbia University Press).
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