2020 World Refugee Day: Wichita teacher honors refugees

By Niki Gresham

Over 70.8 million human beings were forced to leave their homes. They come to this country seeking safety, security, and a life free from violence and persecution. Most of the students I have in class were born in refugee camps. They spent the entirety of their childhoods—in refugee camps. The one family that I work with that did not have this experience only spent 6 years in the refugee camp because one of the family members was in desperate need of medical attention.

The most surprising thing about the refugees with whom I have worked is that they are happy. I know that they have had to endure innumerable hardships; I know that they have suffered in ways that I cannot possibly understand, yet overall, most of my students seem to be happy. They do not express the symptoms that we usually see in students who have experienced trauma. I often wonder if this is something that will be detrimental to them later in life. I wonder if we should be doing more to protect their mental health.

The most challenging experience I have had with the students I teach is the interruptions in education they have experienced. It is frustrating, because as someone who has taught everything from first to tenth grade, I feel that I know how to teach these students. I know that I could use their language to help them develop competence in English. I firmly believe in the power of bilingual education. Unfortunately, as soon as they enter school here we are racing against the clock; no matter when they entered the country, students have until they are twenty-one years old to graduate.

My greatest concern is for my refugee students who lack literacy in their first language; I feel like those students are adrift without an anchor to which they can tie new knowledge. I am terrified for what lies ahead of them. Will they be able to find work? Will they be able to care for their families? Will they be vulnerable in all their relationships? Who will keep them safe when they leave here? Who will advocate for them?

I would like to see my students receive equitable educational opportunities. It is very frustrating to see students who are bright and can be successful, turned away or discouraged from taking rigorous courses because they struggle with the English language. Many of our students learned the concepts being taught to our high school aged students in elementary or middle school. Many of our students are fluent in multiple languages. They are capable of making linguistic connections and understanding things in a way that monolingual students are not capable of making.

Niki Gresham is an ESOL teacher at North High School who has worked in the Wichita Public School District for 20 years.

Picture of Beth Cormack
Beth Cormack

Beth is the project manager for the Saint Francis Ministries Marketing and Communications team.

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