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Commentary: Doss Elementary models support for its refugee families

Down the street from my home in Northwest Hills, a refugee resettlement agency called Caritas places families from war-torn countries in relatively affordable apartments. Each day, they trek up Far West Boulevard to reach Doss Elementary School.

My daughter, who is in kindergarten, calls out names when she sees her friends, Shookria from Afghanistan and Honorine from Tanzania. At the end of the day, mothers with a variety of colorful headscarves, speaking Arabic, Pashto, or Swahili wait to pick up their children. I sit with them regularly, honored to hear a little about their lives and struggles.

Since 2014, refugee families from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Burundi, and Sudan have become part of the landscape at Doss, which currently welcomes 57 refugee children scattered throughout all grades. Doss is tied with Hart Elementary for the highest number of refugees in Austin ISD.

“At first we were so crowded, and the influx came so unexpectedly,” said Janna Griffin, principal of Doss Elementary. “There was a lot of frustration. We didn’t have the systems in place.”

Doss chose unique ways to quickly integrate its refugees, despite 886 other students, a Chinese immersion program, 140 English-learning children (including the refugees), and 28 portables eating up its outdoor track. And in a world that has begun shunning refugees, I find its approach exemplary.

Doss established a connection with the University of Texas’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. By the spring of 2015, a dozen students from UT’s Arabic Flagship Program travelled to Doss to assist with translation in and out of the classroom.

Teachers and administrators felt more at ease with this initial support, Griffin said. Commendably, they also confronted their misconceptions after hearing the refugee families’ challenging personal stories.

Within a few months, the word spread about UT’s translators at Doss. The university sent 36 students last fall and 21 more in the spring to 16 Austin ISD schools.

Not deterred by having to share its translators, Doss started implementing additional programs, which organically sprung up through its community. A donation of $10,000 was given to supplement a part-time, Arabic-speaking teacher — who happens to be a former Iraqi refugee — for students learning English. Its World Voices Committee collected backpacks, clothing and used bikes for the kids.

A fifth-grade teacher on the board of CISV International, an organization that promotes cross-cultural friendship, started a weekly after-school program, called Mosaic, where the refugee students learn soccer from a volunteer Lonestar Soccer Club coach and engage in other team-building activities. Doss merely has to pay for snacks.

One Friday, I attended Mosaic and heard the loud, joyful noises flowing out of a classroom and the library where 35 children gathered. Some then headed outside for games. At the end of a 40-minute skills session, the soccer coach yelled, “Everybody grab and hug your ball,” and say, “I’m going to keep you, ball.” The kids roared once they understood they could take the balls home.

Currently, the Austin school district has a total of 989 refugees, with 35 waiting to enroll. In the coming years, Maria Arabbo, the refugee family support specialist, predicts new refugees will move to housing opportunities in South Austin. She’s encouraging the Doss vertical team to connect with schools in that area, such as Galindo Elementary.

Doss’s potential plans for next year include a grant-sponsored mental health center with multilingual counselors, outdoor donation bins and a continuation of its existing programs. Jeanne Chizzonite, the chair of Doss’s World Voices Committee, also envisions a parent-refugee liaison for each classroom.

Many of Doss’s initiatives can be replicated throughout the Austin district, but like at Doss, it will take a dedicated communal effort and a perspective that all cultures possess the same basic needs.

I agree with Griffin when she said: “I think our community understands the value of the world greater than Doss Elementary. For our kids to appreciate the cultural differences at this age is such a gift and a leg up.”

Pardo-Kaplan is a freelance journalist and a Doss Elementary School parent.

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