LANCASTER, Pa.— They told her to repeat a string of sounds she didn’t recognize.

The Congolese refugee looked across foreign faces and unfamiliar complexions. English was another feature she didn’t share with her new Central Pennsylvanian classmates. Desperate for peer connection, Emerance Uwineza echoed the request.

Her three words sent laughter across the sixth-grade girls in front of her, one poised to capture a TikTok.

“They told me to say, ‘I am ugly,’” Emerance recalled, her dark brown eyes communicating something her words still couldn’t. “Yeah, when I remember that, I felt like, ‘What? Why didn’t I know that?’”

Through bullying, culture shock and a three-year battle learning English alongside core content, the now-16-year-old could tell you: transitioning to U.S. life has been far from simple.

Emerance Uwineza inside McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pa.
JOE LAMBERTI/USA TODAY NETWORK ATLANTIC GROUP

Resettlement comes with the promise of education. The promise of quality may be less distinct. Refugees are folded into financially strained education systems, in a country still embroiled in a battle within itself about which prisms of its history to teach.

But from urban districts to small boroughs, U.S. school systems pose as pivotal turning points in refugee family integration.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is just one district having taken on the challenge over decades. More than 70 languages are now spoken throughout a school system whose city hosted 20 times more refugees per-capita than the rest of the country in 2017.  

In August 2021, a military evacuation out of Afghanistan held international attention. Evacuee totals dwarfed U.S. refugee entries under the last two years of the Trump Administration combined. Over 70,000 of these evacuees filled military bases, beginning their resettlement across the country by October.

Lancaster can expect about 30 to 40 per month, until the program ends in March, according to one of its most prominent resettlement agencies, a branch of Church World Service.

The story doesn’t end there. Really, it’s just getting started.

“This moment of leaving and the moment of arrival are never really what resettlement is about,” said Sarah Dryden-Peterson, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she leads a research program focusing on refugee education and community development.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
Resettlement is about this long-term process of creating a new life, something that might make it seem worthwhile to have left — and I think education is the hope that leaving home might have been worthwhile.

“Resettlement is about this long-term process of creating a new life, something that might make it seem worthwhile to have left — and I think education is the hope that leaving home might have been worthwhile.”

Globally, over half of refugee children displaced from their homes will access education.

Secondary level averages 34%, tertiary level just 5%, according to United Nations data. About half of the world’s 26.4 million refugees are under 18 years old.

Most refugees spend years in camps or neighboring countries of asylum in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa — with only about 1% gaining final resettlement to countries like the United States.

For those entering the country by age 13, there is little difference in high school graduation rates between refugees and the U.S.-born — about 90% — according to surveys examined in a working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017. But, after age 13, graduation rates drop off sharply.

“What we’ve seen of refugee students who have come to the U.S. in the past, what we see in other countries, is just how important it is to very quickly understand where each young person is in their education,” Dryden-Peterson said.

Many of these children need to learn a completely new or largely unfamiliar language. Everything else is likely new, too, from student and parent requirements, to curricula and school buildings, to lockers, textbooks and computers.

Lancaster, about 80 miles west of Philadelphia, known most for its Amish roots, will stick to a tried resettlement network. The small city alone received nearly 5,000 people from 2002 to 2019. Most of the Afghan newcomers have entered under Humanitarian Parole, requiring application for asylum within the next two years.

One aspect of this resettlement won’t be as eye-catching as over 26,000 Afghan parolees deplaning at Philadelphia International Airport. Settling into the fabric of a community involves more than a new ZIP code, more than a new roof over the family.

Another piece will play out in Lancaster schools.

“This is not just an emergency,” Dryden-Peterson said. “This is a long-term process for our communities.”

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