OUR ANSWER TO THE REALITY THAT MANY REFUGEE PARENTS FEEL DISCONNECTED FROM SCHOOL, ISOLATED, AND UNABLE TO EMPOWER THEIR PRE-K KIDS?
A PARENT/SCHOOL PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM.
After decades of protracted exile, surviving conflict and persecution, our families finally arrive in the United States, ready to re-build their lives. However, this new beginning is full of unimaginable bureaucratic hurdles and leads, almost immediately, to a sense of utter alienation in this new country. And for refugees who are illiterate, even filling out simple forms is a nightmare. If you think native-born Americans hate bureaucracies and red tape, imagine how much refugees dread them.
Schools become a “no go” zone for parents, as schools’ bureaucratic forms, procedures and customs are totally alien to refugees who never went to school themselves. Even physically entering a school is challenging to parents, as they are met by a locked door, a buzzer and an intercom, with a disembodied voice of a security guard demanding, “what is the purpose of your visit.”
These selfless parents have crossed borders and oceans to ensure their children’s education; as one parent told us, “I am alive for my children.” But the system falls short, again and again, because it is built for parents who can navigate online forms and notices, have email addresses, speak English and are literate.
The Family-School Partnership Program, led by Simran Arora with support from FORA's Community Relations Coordinator, Claire Holba, aims to cut through the fear and red tape in order to overcome the alienation and disempowerment that refugees feel when engaging with the education system. The program’s core effort is to provide parents with a trusted professional partner who can teach them how to access resources and leap over every hurdle facing their families. With victories come confidence and with confidence comes more victories. But this takes time – often years. While the parents are learning how to help their own children succeed in school, the children are at risk; it is critical that the children have immediate and full access to an education. Therefore, while gradually empowering the parents, we also serve as a direct advocate for the children, working with their teachers, case managers, and principals to ensure that our students thrive.
Another important pillar of our program is Parent Discussion Circles. Transitioning to life in the U.S. brings with it feelings of isolation, lack of support from extended family, and the need to rebuild lives in a culture and society that is alien to them. Discussion circles are aimed at empowering mothers and, ultimately, increasing their confidence and capacity to be involved in their children’s education. Through culturally responsive and trauma-informed discussions, mothers are encouraged to share and reflect on their individual struggles and challenges with raising children in a technology-centered society. Because trust is high, these circles are relaxed and supportive. “My favorite thing about these circles is how joyfully chaotic they are, with multiple languages spoken simultaneously and toddlers playing joyfully. Most importantly, there is laughter all around as the moms share their stories,” says Simran.
In the coming months, we will be starting an early childhood school-preparedness “Mommy & Me” program where young mothers will work on pre-literacy skills and school readiness alongside their children. Our vision is to encourage storytelling, play and reading as daily practices between mothers and their children. From reciting poems in Burmese or Rohingya, to practicing ABCs, to creating hop-scotch number lines on the sidewalk, we want to ensure that learning is experiential and joyful from an early age. We also want mothers to view themselves as educators, because, of course, they are. Importantly, our Mama & Me lesson plans are being co-developed and co-facilitated by refugee mothers from the community.
At FORA, we believe that parents are our partners, and they are the experts regarding their children. In all we do, we want to encourage the use of traditional Burmese and Rohingya and Afghan and Bhutanese practices while also introducing researched-based child development strategies. At FORA, it is imperative that we create and grow with the community we serve. Their agency and power are at the heart of all we do.
"Schools become a 'no go' zone for parents, as schools' bureaucratic forms, procedures and customs are totally alien to refugees who never went to school themselves."
Pictured: Simran Arora, Family/School Partnership Program Coordinator, with current and soon to be FORA students and their mom