Building+Bridges%2C+Not+Walls

Building Bridges, Not Walls

Local school for refugees starts the new school year

October 18, 2016

While the idea of building a wall to keep out refugees has been floating around for awhile, Decatur certainly has no plans to do so.

Families have been fleeing to the U.S. for years now as their home countries are torn apart by anything from war to famine. But one Decatur organization has taken one step farther in supporting these refugees.The Global Village Project, also known as GVP, has taken it upon themselves for the past eight years to educate young girls coming to U.S., in the hope to help integrate them into our society.

A different student has made each puzzle piece. They have been fit together to represent how all the girls together form one whole.
A different student has made each puzzle piece. They have been fit together to represent how all the girls together are one family.

“Given some of the challenges that these refugee girls have faced to be educated,” said Krista Forsgren, “they are, in general, much less prepared for a mainstream public school than their male counterparts.”

Forsgren, a former World Geography teacher at the Global Village Project, believes that the strategies implemented by the GVP help the girls quickly catch up to their non-refugee equivalents, despite the obstacles that were present in their lives.

“If there is a school in the refugee camp, usually boys get to go but girls have to stay and take care of their siblings, or cousins, or other people,” Forsgren said. “So GVP’s school size and attention to one on one tutoring for students really helps them make progress.”

But tutoring and lessons tailored to each individual student aren’t the only strategies being implemented at GVP. Marjorie Cooper, the science teacher and S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) director at the school believes that exposing students to different experiences, including the Arts, are just as important as a basic Common Core education.

“In their acquisition of another language, if we can find ways other than just looking at text or listening to a teacher talk,” Cooper said, “if we can find other ways to have them interact with language, it’s very important. It makes them more comfortable with it, it’s more fun. Anything that you do with your body, your voice, your movement, it’s going to go deeper in.”

With this is mind, GVP has structured the entire school environment around the idea of having their students experience English in the most productive and fun ways possible.

From field trips to the High Museum to a new partnership with Synchronicity Theatre to teach the kids their material through drama, teachers and administrators are working hard to make sure students have every opportunity they can to fully experience their new language.

With the limited resources the school has, it's important that they make everything they do have last as long as possible. Almost all of the stools have tennis balls on the legs to help the stools and the floor to last.
With the limited resources the school has, it’s important that they make everything they do have last as long as possible. Almost all of the stools have tennis balls on the legs to help the stools and the floor to last longer.

But English is only one of the many things these student have to learn. One of the bigger challenges the school faces is teaching 12 years of schooling in three years, which is no easy feat. Amy Pelissero, the director of GVP, says that while the school doesn’t provide every experience one may get in a normal school setting, this “cram” school provides all of the essentials for these young girls to succeed in a normal high school environment.

“They come with a dream that they’re going to graduate high school,” Pelissero said, “and hopefully go to college and have a career. So [we have to ask ourselves], what could we give them and help them to get in three years that we think is most important?”

A normal school day for the girls includes a vigorous schedule of core classes, as well as other classes such as PE, with English tutoring incorporated into the schedule throughout. This tutoring is where volunteers, like Tahereh Ahdieh, come into play.

“I help the girls with their readings,” Ahdieh said. “I assist their teacher or, alternatively, a group of us volunteers work with them [the girls] individually, and help them read their books.”

These books are a big part of the girls’ language development, as a large amount of them learn English as a second or even third language. A strong literacy foundation is fundamental for these students because it would be difficult to learn in a place where you can’t even read the material. Of course, learning English perfectly isn’t a foolproof path to a rewarding education.

“A lot of it, I think, has to do with being confident and feeling comfortable,” Pelissero said. “Saying to somebody ‘I need help, can you help me understand this,’ or ‘I need more support.’ Not being afraid.”

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The girls have taken to their new environments relatively well, and seem to enjoy the school as well as their teachers. A student who talked to me but does not wish to be named had a very positive view of the school and the way they teach.

The My Necklace project is a short bio students write about themselves in the form of describing various beads and adornments on a hypothetical necklace.
The My Necklace project is a short bio students write about themselves in the form of describing various beads and adornments on a hypothetical necklace that represent different things about themselves.

“At this school you’re all the same, like family,” the student said. “All the girls are like your sister and all the teachers are like your mother or grandmother, and they help a lot.”

These lives of these girls have been filled with fear for the time they were refugees, without security or a true home to speak of. And while they may need some more help than the average American, that doesn’t make them a burden to this country. GVP gives these girls a stable environment to spend their days in, and a measured exposure to American culture in such a way that they are able to feel more like normal people every day.

“Refugees who came to this land are no different from any other people… except that their circumstances were worse,” Pelissero said. “I wish people would understand that there is a huge community of refugees here… And all they need is a little extra support for this journey, and then they are capable of making their way and contributing like everybody else.”

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