Life of Learning
10:10 am
Wed March 12, 2014

For These Refugee Students, Learning Life Skills Is Part of the Curriculum

On Monday afternoon, a chartered bus wound its way through the steep, narrow roads of the South Hills on its way to Baldwin High School.

On board were employees of HIAS, an agency that works with the State Department in bringing refugees to the United States. HIAS works with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, one of four resettlement agencies in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh has become a hub for refugees. This week HIAS is holding its national conference here, and among the activities are visits to where refugees live, work — and go to school.

Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, said they wanted to visit a school to see what changes have been made in the decade since they started placing the most recent of the big refugee populations in the region, the Burmese.

"When we first started resettling Burmese it was a real challenge here in Pittsburgh," he said. "There was not the infrastructure, and so much was learned from the Burmese experience, because of a lack of language facilities, but that was then built into the subsequent resettlement efforts that we’ve had especially now with the Bhutanese."

With thousands of refugees now calling southwestern Pennsylvania home, schools have had to change. At the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, they’ve added English as a Second Language teachers and worked cultural competencies into teacher curriculums.

"We have dealt with populations of children where the children have never put on a pair of shoes," said Kelly Noyes, the ESL program director at The Allegheny Intermediate Unit. "They don’t know what a light switch is, things of that nature where it goes really beyond just teaching them English and teaching them those day to day survival skills."

Those types of survival skills are what the program at Baldwin High School focuses on.

"I learned how to like apply for jobs, which is way important, make resumes," said Daruka Nyuon, a 17-year-old Sudanese junior who came to the US from Kenya seven years ago.

Along with 21 other students, she’s part of this program, which helps them prepare for everything that will come after graduation, whether it be work or college or as many of them plan, a combination of both.

This program includes lessons in registering for the SATs, shaking someone’s hand properly and handling a household budget. These are things, the school’s guidance counselor says, they aren’t going to learn from their parents.

In a classroom set up with clusters of table, six students spoke to the members of HIAS about what their lives were like in the countries where they came from and what the positives and negatives of their lives here are.

Dispesh Timsina, a 16-year-old junior who came here from a refugee camp in Nepal, is the primary conduit to American culture for his family, a big change coming from a culture where elders are revered.

My parents aren’t fluent in English, and they don’t know much about education system or anything else, so they are more dependence on us so that shifted a little," he said. "Between us, and our parents who knew everything about everything and our camps ... I thought there was a big change in respect between each other," he said.