Stories Waiting to be Told

Refugee students find their voices.

"I remember running through the streets that were once so shiny and so beautiful, now turning into bloody mess," Zoka Mujkanovic, 13, wrote in a poem for his language arts class last fall. "I saw people on the ground yelling, 'Please help me.' That is the worst feeling of all, watching people die and there is nothing you can do about it.

"I watched in horror, praying to God that I'm just dreaming and for him to get me out of this nightmare. But no, the smell of burning buildings and the noise of tanks rushing down the streets and the blood of the wounded soldiers made it too real. From that day and now, nothing will ever be the same."

Daily life in Fargo, N.D., where Zoka and his family were resettled as refugees in 1997 and where he is now an 8th grade student at Agassiz Middle School, is a world away from war-torn Bosnia. Most of the other 631 students in the district's burgeoning esl program, who represent 58 cultures and speak 33 languages, are also refugees.

Stories like Zoka's, recounting violence and loss, surface often in Fargo's esl classrooms, and sometimes in mainstream classes, as refugee students begin to feel safe and to build trusting relationships.

"Almost all of them have experienced death, dying, hurt and loss," says Vonnie Sanders, Zoka's esl teacher at Agassiz. "They want to talk about what's happened, and if you give them ample opportunity for conversation in the classroom, it comes out."

A veteran elementary teacher, Sanders felt apprehensive when she began teaching refugee students ESL five years ago. She soon realized that her most important responsibilities included recognizing when a refugee student needed to share a story, giving the child the opportunity to do so, and modeling acceptance and respect for the children, their culture and their stories. "If I don't listen," she says, "they won't be free to learn."

Sanders notes that ordinary classroom situations may stir the memory of a traumatic experience. As a student learns English vocabulary for family relationships, for example, he may want to describe how his father or grandmother was killed in the war. Sanders makes clear to her students that they, too, must always listen to one another respectfully. "That way, they know this is a safe place," she says.


A Community-Wide Embrace

As defined by the United Nations, refugees are persons living outside their native country "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion." In recent years, the largest groups in the u.s. have come from African, Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries. However, for many years after the Vietnam War, Southeast Asians comprised the largest group of refugees in Fargo and other cities across the country.

Thanks to the efforts of many esl and mainstream teachers, counselors and administrators, Fargo is particularly attuned to the needs of refugee students and is committed to meeting them. This commitment can be attributed in part to the enthusiasm and experience of two individuals: Michele Vannote and Verlene Dvorachek. Vannote, a kindergarten principal, has directed the esl program since the first few refugee students, who were Vietnamese, arrived in the mid-1970s; Verlene Dvorachek has been esl curriculum manager 14 years and taught adult esl for 15.

Over the years, Vannote has obtained federal and state grants, as well as local funding, to help pay for teacher training and educational and social projects to help refugee children succeed. She and Dvorachek regularly recruit volunteers for esl classrooms from local colleges and universities. They invite refugee parents to talk to teachers about their cultures and their war experiences.

The two educators have encouraged a district-wide joining of forces with the parks and recreation department, public libraries, YMCA and nearby children's museum, establishing or promoting programs that will appeal to refugee families. They work closely with the well-staffed resettlement agency, Lutheran Social Services, which recently opened the Center for New Americans and hired a counselor to work with refugee students and their teachers.

"You can't leave one stone unturned," says Vannote. "You've got to use every resource available."

Fargo's outreach to its refugee families, Vannote believes, began in 1994 with the Cultural Diversity Project, created with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust. Over a four-year period, the project brought together mayors and other community leaders in Fargo and West Fargo on the North Dakota side, and Moorhead and Dilworth in nearby Minnesota, to plan positive responses to the area's rapidly changing population in the fields of education, business, housing and the arts.

A veteran elementary teacher, Sanders felt apprehensive when she began teaching refugee students ESL five years ago. She soon realized that her most important responsibilities included recognizing when a refugee student needed to share a story.

Like Fargo, many schools across the country have enrolled large numbers of refugee students in recent years. Unlike Fargo, however, most have not identified local resources to help them work with the new students. Teachers, feeling unprepared to meet the needs of children whose education has been interrupted by war, who speak little or no English, and who may have experienced unimaginable trauma, have been begging for help.

In 1997 the Minnesota legislature responded to this void by funding the Minnesota School Project. The unique project draws upon the resources of the Center for Victims of Torture (cvt) that opened in Minneapolis in 1985 -- another first-of-its-kind in the u.s. The Minnesota School Project provides training for teachers and school staff regarding refugee children, telephone consultation on individual cases, and presentations for students.

Mirjana Bijelic, a social worker at cvt and a Croatian immigrant, is project coordinator. This year she will train about 50 groups of teachers – from individual schools or whole districts – in 90-minute to half-day sessions designed to sensitize participants to the experiences and needs of their refugee students. She notes that the strategies she teaches work well with students who have endured other kinds of trauma as well, such as family violence or a constant struggle for survival.

"Trauma response is not necessarily just war-related," Bijelic says. "The emotional difficulties, such as nightmares and difficulties with memory, are similar for all traumatic experiences. The sense of deprivation, sadness and anger is also similar."

Typically Bijelic begins training sessions with videos that give teachers an idea of how war may have affected their students and their families. "An average teacher has seen some war scenes on tv, read a book and seen movies about armies or war heroes," she notes. "But these don't look at everyday life – people being physically affected by lack of food and shelter, and psychologically affected."

From there, Bijelic points out signs of distress for which teachers should watch. Fears, exaggerated worries about things like finding the next classroom, frequent stomach aches or headaches, under- or overeating, sleep problems, memory problems, inability to concentrate, sadness and depression can all signal lasting effects of war trauma, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


Messages of Reassurance

Not every refugee child who exhibits a symptom needs special help, Bijelic points out. On the other hand, students can appear to be fine when they do need help. When teachers and counselors believe students need therapy they cannot provide, she recommends guiding their families to mental health services available through resettlement and social service agencies, local or county mental health facilities, universities and grief support groups.

Some cultures discourage talking about personal problems, and those parents may reject community mental health services for their children. However, the parents may be willing to meet with counselors from their own culture or religion.

All children who have experienced trauma, even those who seem to be managing well, need messages of reassurance from adults, expressed through words or actions, and teachers are in an excellent position to offer that support. "School is for kids a significant place," Bijelic says. "It can certainly be as healing as a therapist's office."

Reassuring messages should be simple and realistic, she suggests: This is a safe place; you are likable, capable and needed; you can have a good future; you can influence what happens to you; you can contribute to our school and community.

In addition to giving refugee students opportunities to talk, draw or write about their war experiences if they wish to do so, Bijelic encourages teachers to help them prosper by building on small successes. For example, rather than ignoring or criticizing low scores on a vocabulary test, a teacher might congratulate a student for getting 3 of 10 questions correct and ask, "What helped you to learn this?"

"Expectations may have to be adjusted for a student who has missed three years of school and has seen people killed and bombs exploded," she adds.

Involvement in sports and other extracurricular activities can also help children feel successful. The Fargo school district recently solicited a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to set up after-school programs that draw second-language students into extracurriculars quickly, thus establishing a sense of belonging in their new culture.

Recognizing that many second-language learners at Agassiz Middle School did not participate in intramural sports until two or three years after they arrived because they didn't know game or social rules, the school introduced a biweekly "Rules of the Game" class. From there, students move right into the intramural program.

Other schools are offering different programs to bring esl students and native Fargo students together for fun activities such as chess lessons and tournaments, computer classes and an international club.


Bearing Witness

A group of nine students at Sullivan Middle School in Minneapolis, including two immigrants and one refugee, are discussing a video Mirjana Bejilic showed them earlier in homeroom. The video featured a Cambodian boy their age who lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine.

The students first share ideas about how they would reach out to the Cambodian boy if he came to their school. After one student points out that not all refugee students respond when other students reach out to them, they consider the reasons candidly. The biggest problem, they say, is rumors. When students do not speak the same language, "each culture thinks the other is talking about them," one student explains. As the discussion continues, the students suggest solutions. Several note that they forget that anyone is different from them when they play sports. "If you're playing soccer or basketball, you have to work together," one explains.

Another student suggests asking Somali paraprofessionals and students if they will teach a Somali language class after school. That would help them talk to one another more and worry less about rumors, the students agree.

Barbara Brenner, the students' homeroom teacher, is not surprised by their insight into social relationships at school, which she calls middle-schoolers' biggest concern, and their ability to suggest good solutions to problems. "The kids are used to being called upon as peacemakers," she says. "And this age is very keen about fairness and justice."

At another Minneapolis school, Roosevelt High, English teacher Tracey Pyscher started a project last year that focused students in a different direction – toward the personal experiences that have shaped their lives. Although not a refugee, Pyscher identifies with students who are.

She describes herself in adolescence as "a young person at risk." At 15 she ran away from home. Earlier, as a means of coping with an alcoholic father who abused her mother, Pyscher says she shut off all her emotions.

In recent years, large groups of refugee students, most of them Somali, have enrolled at Roosevelt. Pyscher has heard some students talk in a detached manner about a rape or death they witnessed and recognized the same symptoms of withdrawal.

Last year, Pyscher was asked to teach two transitional classes for esl students who would be mainstreamed the following year. She had noticed that although her mainstream refugee students never talked about their war experiences in class, they poured the stories out in journal assignments. She was also aware that many of their classmates and some staff knew little about the culture of the international students or the Muslim faith that was, in many cases, central to their lives.

Writing about their experiences could be therapeutic for her students, Pyscher realized. Publishing the stories could also help the whole school community to understand them.

Pyscher introduced her idea for an anthology of student voices by sharing writing about some of her own painful adolescent experiences. "I shared how you deal with pain," she says. "I wanted them to trust me." She encouraged students to write about things that were important to them but gave them freedom to choose their topics. Her students responded by writing about the beautiful haven that Somalia was before the civil war broke out, the deaths and destruction they witnessed after that, and the difficulties of starting over in a new country. One girl wrote about missing her happy childhood home in Laos, another about the civil war in Liberia that claimed the lives of her family, friends and neighbors.


A First Step

Students chose the title Unforgettable Stories, posed for pictures, contributed artwork and helped Pyscher edit the stories. Working after school, they typed pages and ran off 200 copies of each, using the school's only copy machine and paper donated by the English department. They stapled the 67-page booklets and distributed them to every teacher and staff member.

Maryan Kalif, a Somali junior whose story described a young mother dying as her twin babies nursed, says that publishing the book was her first step in being able to talk about the terrible things that happened. "It was hard for me but now I can open up," she says.

Sophomore Amina Mohamed wrote about the frustration of being stared at and stereotyped simply because she dressed like a Somali-Muslim girl. "It was good to get it out of my heart and let other people know how I feel," she says. As a result of her story, she hears fewer stereotypical comments like "All Somali men abuse women" and "The women cover their bodies because of weight or because they don't have hair."

Back in Vonnie Sanders' esl classroom at Agassiz Middle School in Fargo, Zoka Mujkanovic seems pleased by compliments for the haunting poem he wrote about Bosnia. For now, though, he brushes off questions about the experience. "I got over that," he says.

He is not convinced that writing about that terrible day helped him. "It kinda brings bad memories," he says. "It gets you back a little bit." Hastily he adds, "Not like you're going to cry."

Sanders predicts that Zoka and other students will talk and write about their war experiences frequently in the months ahead. At those times, she'll continue to encourage them to do so. Sometimes she may cry with her students; she thinks it's ok for them to see tears in her eyes. But afterwards, she'll help them get back to work.

"I have to provide normalcy for them," Sanders says. "Sometimes I say, 'You have homework. We'll keep on with life, and things will get better.' It's my job to balance listening and caring and providing a place where we'll all move on."

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