The biggest challenge more than 100 school-age immigrants faced this summer was learning a new language, navigating a new culture and grasping basic city living skills at Refugee Youth Summer Academy, an education program run by the the International Rescue Committee in New York. If that weren’t enough of a culture shock and melting pot for six weeks, these same young refugees and asylum recipients have now entered the New York City public school system. However, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) remains part of the students’ — and their parents’ — lives as they become New Yorkers.
In a follow-up to a New York Times video profile of the academy, MetroFocus asks the academy’s principal Sailesh Naidu what’s next in store for these brave, young immigrants. Naidu is also the education advisor of the IRC’s New York City resettlement office.
Q: How often do new refugees enter the program?
A: We have an open door for newly arrived families. We will have six or seven families a month in a high period; in a low period, one or two.
Q: What happens to students after the summer academy?
A: The IRC is committed to staying in these youths’ lives throughout the school year and we really immerse ourselves in these families’ lives. We have several tools in place to ensure that they have the support they need to transition to the New York State public school system. To mention just a couple of programs, we assign an academic coach to all of our youth and this is a social work intern that is with the family through every step throughout the school year. They become the interlocutors between the school, the family and the student.
We then run a host of out-of-school programs. We have one at P.S. 199 in Queens which is for the cutest Tibetan elementary school students you have ever seen in your entire life. They develop strong friendships there and a really strong community base. At Brooklyn International High School, the program focuses on homework help and we also infuse creative arts learning in that as well. Kids are working not only on getting help with their academic classes but also developing their emotional capacity to express themselves and talk about how they are feeling through this transition process. We really try to select the best people to help our students.
The last program that we run are parent workshops, which are aimed at empowering the parents and giving them the tools they need to play active roles in their child’s education, and also to learn what parenting looks like in the U.S. What we teach them is that schools here look at education as a partnership with the family and we teach parents strategies and ways to support their child’s education as home.
Q: Have there ever been too many students and parents or anybody you have turned away? Does budget ever become an issue?
A: No, no we don’t turn anybody away. The goal in the refugee program is that all our students can succeed in an academic setting and will graduate high school and go on to a secondary learning institution or move on to have a job or a career, and we are committed to that process by developing the best quality services that we can provide. In terms of budget, we are a nonprofit and are always looking for new sources to fund our programming and creative ways we can work with organizations and institutions to expand our scope of services.
Q: Do you know how the two siblings in the New York Times video who came from Nepal are doing — Kamal and Asmita Dhaurali?
A: This is where our academic coaching program steps in. We enrolled them in school and we let [the school] know about Asmita and Kamal’s situation and what their experience was coming to the U.S., and before they came to the U.S., their lack of schooling. At home there is a lot they are going to have to catch up on and there is no way to really dance around that, but kids are resilient and these kids are able to make these kinds of strides. We give them the tools and resources to do so.
Q: Abdoul Diallo came to America six years ago and was in the summer academy. Now that he’s in college, is he still involved with the IRC?
A: We really want to train our youth to become advocates for the community and work with our program to help it grow. Abdoul worked with the summer academy, but he will also be with us and helping people in his own community for a long time to come. This is an issue that he’s passionate about and seeing the work that the IRC has done to help him personally has just encouraged him to take on that work himself. I think the important element is that we seek to empower our youth, to ultimately make changes in their communities and become advocates for these issues on their own.
Q: Do you have any specific goals you personally want to achieve in the next few years?
A: Ultimately we want to be able to better track and see our clients’ progress throughout the years. One of my personal goals is to develop our tools and services to support families through transition, not only within the first nine months but continually as these issues come up because the first nine months aren’t where it ends. These families are going to need help throughout their life here in New York and it’s really about how to we build the tools to empower them to really come up with solutions and then help others.
This interview by MetroFocus intern Philly Bubaris has been edited and condensed.