Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Celebrating the Refugees Already in Our Classrooms: Memories and Advice From a Student

By on December 1, 2015

In June 2001, a family of four escaped from the slaughter of Nepal and made their way across the world to safety. They arrived, not in boats dragged up on shore, but in the arms of families who helped them travel from Nepal to Singapore, from Singapore to South Korea, and from South Korea to Northern California. A few weeks later, Paul, 10-years old and the youngest of this refugee family, was enrolled in my 5th-grade classroom in Berkeley Unified School District.

Three weeks later, our country was attacked on 9/11. Our classroom, along with the whole country, had change and reflection thrust upon them. Our class was made up of a racially and religiously diverse group of students and as such, we spent the year working on embracing our diversity rather than deflecting it.

My post today isn’t necessarily about that 5th-grade classroom, per se. It is about how it reflects the many classrooms in this country that are built on our heterogeneous heritage and future, and the beauty and challenges that diversity brings out in all who learn within them.

For many, our schools are a person’s first experience in this country. The classroom, therefore, is the frontline where people create opinions of our citizens and our society.

This country’s diversity has long been our unique strength. Yet we now hear a debate percolating, one about whether or not this country can accept newcomers, as if their existence in our states is something new.

The fact is that many of our school districts already service hundreds and hundreds of refugee and immigrant children. And as the complaints heat up about refugee children in our schools, I wanted to reach out to Paul, now 26, to share his experience as a refugee and as a student who was new to our school system in the fall of 2001.

Below are clips from our long conversation that was highlighted with laughter and catching up on family. We would drift, however, into discussions about restorative justice in our schools, what it means to grow up in a post-9/11 America, fixed vs. flexible intelligence, and the many people within our educational system who underestimate what these eager EL learners can accomplish with just a little encouragement.


1.Learning about Paul’s past: In this first clip, Paul and I recount his first writers’ journal entry. He would meet me in the mornings, before school, to work on his writing, using the extra time to get out his thoughts, and getting feedback, one sentence at a time. But through informal writing, I got to know a little about where he’d come from.

And in this clip, he describes a little about the schooling in his country:

2.It’s the Little Things: It’s a shame that so many teachers don’t even know when a new student has enrolled until the child shows up in their classroom. Perhaps this is due to a lack of communication between the district to the admin or from the admin to the teacher. Or, it could be people in the chain just not understanding the positive power that teachers could have with just a little heads up. But when Paul entered the classroom to see his name on his desk, it was a first step towards feeling welcomed into the classroom and this country.

3. Middle school life does not define you: We talked a lot about what was, in fact, restorative justice. How, as a boisterous kid, a kid who still struggled to communicate, he wished he wasn’t always sent straight to the office. He also talked about mistakes many of his teachers made when dealing with him as an EL learner and newcomer to this country, in particular mistakes made during the already difficult years of middle school.

4. Embracing diversity in classrooms is both necessary and always a work in progress: The diversity of the class was something we returned to daily as students dealt with their own  “-isms,” stepping on others clumsily as they did so. Come to think of it, they more often embraced each other’s uniquenesses following a project-based learning unit. They didn’t focus so intently on our differences as much while we worked as a team to produce a shadow puppet show based on The Wreak of the Zephyr for the 2nd graders or when we produced a school-wide auction to learn decimal addition and subtraction.

But the ugly default would return as kids learned different words at recess and saw the news and our country tested in its own tolerance.

In this next excerpt, I share an activity that was born from desperation. I remember we were knee deep in a day where statements had been made about how one color was better than another. This typically happened on the yard when I was not around, but the kids would bring in their anger and their temporary hatred, and it made learning come to a complete halt until the wall between kids was broken down and we could find that community once again.

As Shakespeare once said of soldiers, the kids were “jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation, even in the canon’s mouth.” They were quick to anger, quick to defend, and quick to hurt.  These moments needed to be disarmed so that brains could learn.

I don’t know if it was the most pedagogically sound activity, but as a relatively new teacher facing into the storm, I did the first thing I could think of to highlight how unique we each were in that room.


5. What advice could you give to teachers who find refugees in their classrooms? For this one, I’ll let Paul speak for himself:

Once transcribed, his response boils down to the following:

  1. Love Them.
  2. Don’t Think About the Present; Think About the Future For Them
  3. Get To Know Your Students At A Deeper Level
  4. Encourage Them.

Paul’s story is one that many families share, and these families are in our classrooms or are on their way to them. Embrace these children. You are their first taste of what being an American is all about. Embrace their potential and their differences. For they are what being an American is all about too.

As for Paul’s family, they went on to build the Bay Area’s critically acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, the Himalayan Tandoori & Curry House. They worked hard for their dream and this country permitted them to soar.

Be a part of a child’s dream.

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