August 25, 2012
In New York, With 6 Weeks to Adapt to America
By KIRK SEMPLE
The New York Times
TWENTY-FOUR days after he arrived in the United States, Mamadou Fadja Diallo, 13, showed up for summer school in Manhattan looking wary and confused. The building itself was disorienting: big and imposing, with polished floors, nothing like his school back home in Guinea. He was surrounded by students from all over the world. He could not understand a word anyone was saying.
In June, he had left his home in the West African nation with his mother and 12 siblings. The family drove to the airport and flew to New York. None of the children had been on a plane before, and only one could speak any English. They were met by their father, Abdoulaye Diallo, a Muslim imam who had fled Guinea in 2007 and sought asylum in the United States after becoming entangled in his nation’s volatile and violent politics.
That first day of summer school, July 9, began early in the morning, with Mr. Diallo bustling Mamadou and 11 of his siblings, ages 5 to 22, out of their apartment in the Bronx and onto a subway train downtown to Murry Bergtraum High School by the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan.
It was a difficult morning. “I was confused because everybody else was understanding what was being said and I wasn’t understanding,” Mamadou recalled, his father translating.
The Diallos were far from alone in their bewilderment. Their classmates were other young immigrants who, to varying degrees, were feeling the same sense of dislocation.
The Refugee Youth Summer Academy, as the program is called, was created for recently arrived refugees and asylum recipients. The academy, started in 1999 by the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency based in New York City, tries to help its students find a footing in their new country and prepare them for school.
This year, more than 100 students enrolled in the six-week program, which offered an academic curriculum supplemented by creative-arts classes, field trips and other activities. They hailed from at least 13 countries, including Nepal, Burkina Faso, Iran, Iraq and Cameroon. Some had been in the country for a couple of years; others, like the Diallos, had just arrived. They spoke at least 17 native languages. Some could speak and read English fluently; others could not write their own name in any language. Some had attended school in their home countries; others had never been in a classroom.
If there was any commonality in their experience, it was that their families had been driven from their homelands and were seeking a better life in the United States.
The mixed-race father of two Russian boys was compelled to leave his country after suffering brutal racially motivated attacks.
A Bhutanese family, granted refugee status by the United States, left a Nepalese refugee camp that they had called home for 22 years.
The mother of an Afghan boy had suffered unspeakable treatment by his father and fled with her son to New York, where they live in a shelter for women and children.
THE Diallos arrived late on that first morning. The other students sat at long tables in the cafeteria, mostly silent, nervousness and fear on their faces. They made no eye contact with one another and answered questions from enthusiastic staff members with mumbles or gestures — if they answered at all. One small Tibetan child, a SpongeBob SquarePants knapsack strapped to his back and a fedora on his head, put his chin on the table and seemed to disappear under the hat’s brim.
The students were separated into six classes, grouped by age, school experience and English proficiency. Academic courses were held in the morning, with arts and recreation classes in the afternoon. The lead teachers came from the public school system, assisted by volunteer teachers and counselors, many of whom were college and graduate students in education, and some of whom were alumni of the academy.
Bassirou Kaba, 18, one those alumni volunteers, spoke about the importance of such an environment.
“When I came, I didn’t even know how to introduce myself,” he said. Mr. Kaba, who is now a high school senior, recalled his first few days at the academy two years ago, shortly after he arrived from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, where his father had been murdered in the country’s political violence. “I felt really good here because nobody laughed at me,” he said.
One of the main goals of the academy is to acculturate the students to the American school system. All intend to enroll at schools in New York City next month; but the administrators and teachers tried to set realistic goals.
“I wasn’t going to send them out speaking fluent English,” explained Matthew Tully, the upper school English teacher. “I was going to get them to a place where they could have the confidence to talk.”
The Diallos were spread across five of the six classes, and the faculty initially could not tell how much schooling they had received in Guinea. Most of them spoke at least some French in addition to their native tongue of Fulani, but the two youngest children — Ramatoulaye, 5, and Aissata, 6 — spoke no French and did not know how to hold a pencil or a crayon properly. Ramatoulaye, in a pink frilly dress and gold-colored sandals, spent much of the first day in tears. A few days into the program, the faculty deduced that one of the Diallo brothers in high school was partly deaf.
Mamadou, placed in the junior high class, seemed particularly withdrawn and adrift. He said almost nothing, never raised his hand to answer a question and participated in collective activities only reluctantly. His face was perpetually cast in sternness.
In an English class on the second day, Mr. Tully had all the students stand in front of their desks. “Take a step forward if you like drawing!” he beckoned. The students leapt forward enthusiastically, even those who didn’t speak English. Mamadou, however, did not move and made no attempt to catch up with the others.
The staff at the International Rescue Committee, which provided services to about 1,200 New Yorkers last year, was familiar with most of the families in the program. Many had resettled in the United States with help from the organization. But the Diallos had come to the organization’s attention so recently that staff members had not had time to get to know them. The academy’s teachers were learning on the fly who was sitting in their classrooms.
Mr. Diallo refused to discuss his difficulties in Guinea except to say that the horrors he suffered were sufficient to drive him out of the country, separating him for years from his children. But family members offered a picture of their life back home. They had lived in a large house in Conakry, where, in addition to his religious duties, Mr. Diallo ran a clothing-import business. He had his 13 children with five women.
He settled in New York City in 2007 and petitioned for visas for his children and wife under a law that allows those who have received asylum to bring close family members to the United States. While he waited, Mr. Diallo supported himself and his family in Guinea by working as a dishwasher at an upscale restaurant in SoHo.
On June 15, his children, accompanied by his wife, Oumou, arrived in New York. Several of the children were essentially meeting a stranger: Ramatoulaye was only 2 months old when Mr. Diallo left West Africa. The family moved into a subsidized three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a walk-up building in the Norwood section of the Bronx, near Van Cortlandt Park.
In an interview, Tiguidanke, 22, Mr. Diallo’s eldest daughter and the only one of his children who did not attend the summer academy, said the transition had been dizzying for many of her younger siblings. It was a little easier for her: She had grown up with her mother and grandmother, away from her siblings, in Sierra Leone, where she learned English and attended college.
“I don’t think most of them know where they are right now,” she said early this month, while sitting on a small couch in the family’s living room. The apartment was otherwise bare, except for a small wooden table with no chairs and several sets of bunk beds. “But they look like they’re coping,” she continued. “They’re getting acquainted.”
AS the summer unfolded, students settled quickly into their routines and the academy’s classroom scenes came to resemble those at a more typical school. Children formed friendships and alliances, sometimes brokered along language and cultural lines. French-speaking Guineans found comfort in the company of French-speaking Cameroonians and Ivorians. Refugees of Tibetan and Bhutanese descent spoke to each other in Nepali.
But teachers also sought to shake up those cultural cliques.
“New class rule: You must sit with someone from a different country,” said a sign posted in one classroom. The sign was later amended to discourage students who spoke the same language from sitting together.
The Diallos adjusted slowly but steadily; their teachers celebrated each breakthrough.
Ramatoulaye, the youngest Diallo, remained mostly quiet for the next few days. But at the end of the first week, she stood up during lunch in the cafeteria and spontaneously started to dance in front of her classmates, said Xuefei Han, an assistant teacher in the lower school.
By the fifth week, she and Aissata, her sister and classmate, had learned their colors and shapes, were talkative and active, and were putting their hands up in class in response to questions — even if they did not know the answer.
Ramatoulaye also started to bicker with another classmate, a Pakistani girl. But Ms. Han said she did not view that development as entirely negative. “Where before they might conceal their emotions,” Ms. Han said, “they now feel more comfortable showing them.”
An older sister, Fatoumata, 10, was also seized by shyness during the first couple of weeks of the academy. But a pivotal moment came during the third week, when she mustered the courage to raise her hand and ask the teacher, in English, if she could use the bathroom.
“It almost made me cry,” recalled Barbara Cvenic, the assistant teacher of Fatoumata’s junior high school class. “This was a victory, having that confidence to ask for something you really need instead of being uncomfortable all day.”
Mamadou remained among the most withdrawn of the academy’s students. But in a soccer match during a field trip to Central Park at the end of the first week, he briefly came alive, aggressively playing both ends of the field and demonstrating deft ball-handling skills. He played without uttering a sound, however — until about 15 minutes into the game, when he burst through a scrum of defenders and blasted a shot past a bewildered goalie.
Mamadou yelled in celebration and sprinted in a victorious semicircle across the field, smiling for the first time all day as his teammates swarmed him in congratulations. “He’s from my country!” another Guinean student, Djely Bacar Kouyate, exclaimed.
Just as suddenly, however, Mamadou’s smile disappeared and he sank into himself, crossing his arms tightly around his body, as if embarrassed by his outburst.
Ms. Cvenic, his assistant teacher, said a particularly significant moment for Mamadou came during the fifth week.
He had been especially reluctant that week to participate in the creative-arts classes, she said. But one day, while the others were taking a dance class, he approached Ms. Cvenic with a book “and gestured for us to read together,” she recalled. This was a boy, she pointed out, who had avoided eye contact with her for the first three weeks.
“I was floored,” she said.
The two sat outside the classroom, and Ms. Cvenic read aloud with him. These sessions became a regular feature of their remaining afternoons.
Sailesh Naidu, the academy’s principal, said these seemingly small steps were “big victories” for the students.
“What they’ve had to battle in order to raise their hand in class, in order to sing a song with their classmates, in order to get up and dance on stage, in order to take an exam, these are huge things that they have to face, and they’re by no means small battles,” Mr. Naidu said. “Every day these victories are meaningful to them in ways that are immeasurable.”
THE academy drew to a close on Aug. 17 with a graduation ceremony. “There will be some tears,” Eleanor Oxholm, the academy’s program coordinator, had predicted several days earlier. Indeed, as the students braced for their transition into other schools, it was also a time of reflection for the teachers.
“Look, they’re going to have a very tough time, but at least they had a soft landing,” said Livia Rurarz-Huygens, an assistant teacher in the upper school, quickly adding: “And it’s not even a soft landing.” The children have had to contend with a new country and with classmates from different cultures speaking different languages, she pointed out. “But at least it’s a more gentle entry,” she said.
All of the academy’s students were planning to attend schools in the city next month. High school students who spoke limited English would probably attend specialized schools for English-language learners. And the International Rescue Committee would work to place primary and junior high school students with limited English in schools with strong programs in English as a second language, Mr. Naidu said.
The organization would also assign academic coaches to more than 70 students and help serve as intermediaries between the students, their schools and their parents.
With “Pomp and Circumstance” playing, and with parents and donors to the program in attendance, the students, hopped up on excitement and graduation-day candy, filed in.
“Coming to a new country, learning a new language, making new friends: That’s really scary,” Mr. Naidu said in a speech to the students. “But you did it.”
Student dance, music and drama performances followed, each punctuated by wild clapping and euphoric hooting by classmates.
The eldest of the Diallos, Thierno, 22, read a poem in French that he had written and presented to Ms. Oxholm. (“He just came up to me one day and said, ‘Miss Eleanor, I wrote this,’ ” she recalled.) Called “Prayer Poem,” it was a paean to the International Rescue Committee and to the enduring hope of the refugee.“The sun is calling its children/To work! To work! To work!” he wrote. “Tomorrow’s rainbow is not unwell./Bless you!”
As the ceremony ended, the students and faculty members clustered in the aisles in a knot of embraces and tears. Even Mamadou shed his usual stoicism and broke down. “When I leave here,” he murmured sadly in French, “I’ll no longer be able to see my friends.” The friends he named were teachers. He tried to hide behind a pair of sunglasses, but he could not stop weeping, digging his fingers behind the frames to drag away the tears.