Starting School – How Can You Make Newcomers Feel Welcome

By Olufemi Akinsitan, Guest Blogger

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As school is getting ready to start, children of immigrants and refugees will be joining American kids in their schools. These immigrant and refugee children speak various levels of English, and are from different cultures and backgrounds. For these children and their families starting school can be a very intimidating experience; however, teachers, fellow students, and the community can help make this experience a pleasant one.

IMG_20190727_182404955One way is through the provision of school materials by the schools and community groups for these children. According to Leah Shafer, in an article for “Useable Knowledge,” a Harvard Graduate School of Education website,  relationships “were made easier when school (communities) helped provide families with resources, such as food, recycled clothes, and toys.” She also suggested active empathy with such families and their experiences by looking at things from their perspective.

Experts also suggest that using a child’s first name can make him/her feel welcome on the first day of school. Children should not just be asked to introduce themselves they should also be encouraged to share their stories. Such stories of differences in cultures should be celebrated and be viewed as an asset. It is also important to provide translators for families and their children who are not English speakers.

IMG_20190727_180409155Consequently, LSSNCA in partnership with Cherrydale Baptist Church of Arlington, VA recently organized a Back-to-School Event for refugee families in Northern Virginia. According to Ru Buttner, the Volunteer Coordinator for Cherrydale Baptist Church, the event was organized “to create an environment where immigrants can feel welcome to the American community.”

The annual event, in its fifth year, is a partnership between LSSNCA and Cherrydale. Cherrydale provides funding and programming for the day – including a bouncy house, arts and crafts, a delicious meal and refreshments, and the backpacks for giveaway. This year’s event involved 40 volunteers and about 105 children from kindergarten to K12. The children and their parents were mostly Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders from Afghanistan. They were engaged in “fun activities” and over 60 backpacks were handed over to children of pre-school age.

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Furthermore, thanks to generous donations to the LSSNCA NOVA Homework Club, each student received a certificate of achievement and a medal for their hard work during the last school year. In addition to this, top performing students and newly arrived families received laptops and iPads that were donated for the event. These achievements and support for our refugee and immigrant youth in Northern Virginia are made possible by Aya Turki, LSSNCA Dale City Office Director, and Denait Gebretsadik, LSSNCA School Liaison.

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