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K-State Today

June 26, 2017



College of Education hosts World Refugee Day symposium

By Patrice Scott

College of Education art instructor Trina Harlow made a world of difference in the lives of students by opening a dialogue with stakeholders when she hosted the World Refugee Day lunch symposium for educators on June 20. 

Kansas is home to growing refugee populations whose impact is being felt in a variety of places, especially schools. When she learned there were more refugees than any other time in recorded history — 21.3 million with a new 34,000 people displaced daily — she wondered how schools and teachers were handling the situation. World Refugee Day was the perfect opportunity to open the conversation. 

"As a concerned citizen of the world, I realized millions of human beings are displaced from their homes either through violence or natural disaster. This is a global issue and it's affecting the world, and it's affecting education. The more I learned about refugees, the more I investigated, which led me to wonder how schools were handling refugees coming in from so many different countries." 

How are schools in Kansas handling this situation? 

Stephanie Bird-Hutchinson, teaching specialist in the Multilingual Education Service Center for Wichita USD 259, explained her school district has 51,000 students from 94 countries speaking 114 languages. To demonstrate the shift, languages that hardly made it on their list are now in the top 10 such as Arabic (No. 4), Swahili (No. 6) and French (No. 9). In recent years, the district has seen an influx of Congolese refugees because the United States started allowing their entrance about five years ago. 

"Parents don't understand our school system, for example why they have to sign 17 forms to enroll their kids, the importance of immunizations and the cultural challenges of a special needs diagnosis," Bird-Hutchinson said. "Conversely, our staff doesn't completely understand the trauma these families have endured and how to deal with that in the classroom." 

Harlow believes we can address these issues — together. 

"We need an education lens because we need to know what's happening in our schools, and it's going to take all of us doing our part," Harlow said. "We cannot do anything about the politics in some of these countries but as educators in Kansas, we can do something about how refugee children are being acculturated into schools." 

Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education, explained this is exactly why Harlow is such a powerful educator. 

"Trina embodies every trait we as educators try to instill in students, which is to be positive, to use your skills for good in this world and lead by example," Mercer said. "Trina is not hampered by what she cannot do because she is focused on what she can do, and because of that she is truly changing the world and is an inspiration to everyone around her." 

Along with Harlow and Bird-Hutchinson, attendees heard first-hand accounts from K-State students who fled Myanmar (Burma), Afghanistan and the Ukraine. The refugees' names are being withheld to protect their identities.

"Right here on our campus in our town, we have refugees who have overcome the odds and navigated the system," Harlow said. "They've experienced trauma, and they know the solution is education." 

Rev. Jennifer Bryan with Great Plains United Methodists and Better Together nonprofit agency in Kansas City is helping Congolese newcomers to learn English and assimilate into U.S. culture. 

"People escaped in the middle of the night," Bryan said. "Soldiers threw gasoline on their houses and burned them down while family members trapped inside begged for their lives. This is their (refugees) reality, and that trauma comes with them wherever they go." 

Health care and education also pose a significant challenge for refugee families. 

"Women are at a disadvantage when it comes to learning English because they have had no formal education — ever. Consequently, their language barrier can impede being their child's best health advocate," Bryan said. 

While there was agreement there are numerous challenges, there also was agreement that a holistic approach is best. 

"We can do this but, again, we all have to do our part," Harlow said. "Once we tap into the health care providers, educators, social services and the faith-based community, I don't think there is any issue we can't solve."