Hajera Hashimi’s favorite subject at Anderson High School is science. She’s only a freshman but she’s starting to think that the University of Texas is where she wants to go to college. She wants to become a doctor.
Two years ago, she had a harder time envisioning a promising future.
Hajera is from Afghanistan and is one of 1,079 refugee children who attend the Austin school district, which has seen more new refugee students this year than in any year since the district started tracking refugees in 2010. During the first four months of the school year, the district enrolled 377 new refugee children, a 20 percent increase from the second-highest number in 2013-14.
Nearly 800 refugees were resettled in Austin in 2016, the highest number in at least seven years, according to U.S. State Department data.
Amid warnings of refugees as potential national security threats and efforts in Washington and among state leaders to block them from entering the U.S., the Austin school district has proven something of a safe haven for refugee children, even if teachers and district officials struggle to keep pace at times with the growing numbers of refugee students.
Refugees account for just 1 percent of the overall student population, and they are spread out across 91 campuses, but with concentrations in some schools where as many as half of the students in a classroom are refugees.
Educating refugees is fairly new terrain for the Austin district. Teachers have more experience serving students who have recently emigrated from Spanish-speaking countries. Refugees enrolled in the district come from 39 countries and speak languages ranging from French and Arabic to Swahili and Pashto, Hajera’s native tongue. Many of the recent refugees come from Muslim-majority countries, school officials said.
Cultural differences are vast — for example, eating pork is prohibited in Islam and corporal punishment in school is permitted in some countries — and the trauma of growing up in war-torn countries make refugees a unique and challenging student population to serve.
“The social and cultural mores of the U.S. are very specific, and they take some time to adapt, like how do you stand in line or when to raise your hand or speak up,” said Maria Arabbo, refugee family support specialist for the school district. “Also, many refugee students have been through war and seen death.”
Hajera’s father, Sayed Musa, worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army at Bagram Air Base. He made the decision to seek refugee status in the U.S. when thieves broke into his home in 2013 and pointed a gun to his head as they nabbed thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry and electronics, including his work laptop.
Since arriving here, Musa has struggled to reconcile his conservative Muslim faith with the relatively liberal society of the U.S., but he doesn’t like to complain. He’s grateful for the help he’s received in Austin.
“We don’t feel like we’re somehow neglected. The teachers are great. The counselors, the family support specialists — they have done their best to help us. Sometimes, they ask my wife or my kids what do they need and … they have taken action to provide us. For example, that laptop,” Musa said one recent afternoon, pointing to a computer that his first-grade daughter was using to learn to draw.
The refugee challenge
Austin school district officials work with more than a half-dozen nonprofits and refugee resettlement agencies to help refugee families transition to school and life in the U.S.
Once enrolled, students are tested to determine English proficiency and grade level. If a student isn’t evaluated at the grade level that corresponds to his or her age, the student is considered at a higher risk of dropping out. Some students have had breaks in their schooling or grew up in refugee camps that lacked proper health services, leading to learning disabilities or delays that need to be addressed, according to refugee advocates.
At one point, as many as a quarter of refugee students in the Austin school district had left the district — dropped out or transferred to a school outside the district — according to Interfaith Action of Central Texas, which provides services to refugees.
“The standardized test that’s required of all kids is almost impossible for new English learners. There’s a lot of pitfalls that are cultural, and even multiple choice is a Western phenomenon,” said Lu Zeidan, a former teacher in Lebanon and programs director for Interfaith Action of Central Texas. The group created a mentor program to help keep refugees in school and runs a summer program where both parents and children can learn English.
The Austin district provides extra tutoring, sometimes in the student’s native language. Arabbo’s team of five can speak a combined 17 languages and has access to an interpretation phone service. The district has made an effort to boost Arabic-speaking staff in many schools.
The team also helps teachers, who sometimes must be educated on the culture of refugee students, such as understanding religious dietary restrictions.
Arabbo’s office also works with the Center for Survivors of Torture to help students who have had traumatic experiences.
More cultural support
Hashmatullah Yaquby, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Austin in 2015, has two children at Travis Heights Elementary in South Austin. He said that he wishes the district had an after-school program for Afghan children. He’s thinking about enrolling his children in a private Muslim school, he said.
“I am starting to see them … lose their first language,” he said.
Musa, too, said he has considered enrolling his children in schools that have a higher Muslim student population, such as Harmony charter schools, so that he doesn’t have to worry about his children accidentally eating pork or losing ties to their homeland.
Arabbo said the district is improving programs for refugees. She said a more culturally sensitive curriculum and special meals would be ideal. So would centralizing the refugee students so they’re not spread across many different campuses and making the student enrollment process easier. But that all takes money and time.
Arabbo’s office, like such offices in many school districts across the country, receives a federal grant to help integrate refugee children into school communities. The school district received $116,000 in 2016, according to budget documents. The district supplements that with state and local money.
It’s not clear how much money the district will receive this year, if any, given President Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on refugees — he sought to temporarily stop refugees from being resettled in the U.S, a policy being blocked in federal court.
Erica Schmidt-Portnoy, the Austin area director for Refugee Services of Texas, said part of the transition for refugee students and their families is ensuring that they feel welcomed.
“There’s a lot of changes going on at the federal level, and refugees are very prone to not feeling as welcomed as they were just, say, a month ago or a few months ago,” she said. “Refugees need to feel welcomed in their community in order to have successful educational outcomes.”
How five families left dangerous conditions overseas to make their new home in Austin.