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.
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.
“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.”
A conversation with a refugee student in Central Pennsylvania
ESL student and Congolese refugee Emerance Uwineza reflects on her journey to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and her progress with the English language.
USA TODAY NETWORK
She was scared of white people.
Jacqueline Kubembereza was just 12 years old when she arrived. Tucked in a chair edging her J.P McCaskey High School hallway, the refugee remembered a difficult first year in the U.S.
“Things were hard for us,” said the teenager, born in Burundi after her family escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “When we met people, we were just scared of them. I was feeling embarrassed to be in front of white people because we had only been living with Black people.”
At home she would stare at colorful cartoons on TV, hoping to learn a language she never expected to need. In school, she watched other moving faces — still failing to understand their words.
“Just by myself, not talking to other students,” said the refugee student, who spoke only Swahili when her family arrived in 2018. “It was lonely.”
In the classroom, Jacqueline finally found her foothold in U.S. life. And her parents already see the path ahead.
“They want me to finish my school, get a diploma and go to college,” she said, her gaze tracing down the long hallway. “They just don’t want me to let them down.”
So, where does it all start?
“School enrollment is part of the core services,” said Silvia Antenucci, resettlement supervisor with Church World Service. “For refugees, for Afghan parolees, for all our clients, within the 90 days of the resettlement and placement timeframe, school enrollment is one of the biggest.”
The office works with school districts across the area, wherever refugees can be placed in stable, affordable housing.
The school district of Lancaster — the county’s most densely populated district — has anywhere from 400 to 700 refugee students enrolled each year, joining a student body of roughly 11,000, according to the system. About 20% of that entire population is learning English as a second language.
“When the refugee resettlement numbers were a lot larger, we could have been enrolling two or three refugee families a day,” said Shannon Smith, coordinator of ELD and World Languages K-12 in Lancaster. “Everybody’s coming with different educational needs.”
Refugee children often have gaps in their knowledge resulting from disrupted schooling, experts say, not a lack of aptitude. The gaps could be small, as in a few weeks of missed school, or years without schooling. Their families escaped persecution, not always landing in areas with strong educational opportunities.
Carmen Rowe, instructional coach and former ESL teacher, said federal law mandates school systems interview incoming refugee students, as well as other English learners, when they enroll — gathering all information possible on language and prior schooling.
The exact form that takes is not mandated.
In Lancaster, an enrollment specialist, English proficiency test, Home Language Survey and a series of interview questions come into play, according to Rowe.
Some refugees come with traces of previous English instruction, and educators say strong literacy in any native language helps.
Then the students are thrown into both English learning and regular content courses, at once.
International education policy expert Sarah Dryden-Peterson said “relationship building” is key to successful education of refugee students — a patient process of building trust, learning about a student’s experience. That comes alongside predictability — establishing routines, patterns that can feel familiar — and adaptability in the classroom.
“In the United States, the expectation is that students are exposed to content and developing language simultaneously,” Smith explained. “Whereas, in other parts of the world, they learned English to a certain extent, and then, they shift over and learn content.
“It’s a huge lift.”
And not all tests come on paper.
Dryden-Peterson warned against the danger in creating false hope.
“We know in the U.S. there’s vast inequity between schools,” said the expert from Harvard Graduate School of Education. “And the schools in which refugees have most access are often schools that are under-resourced.”
Not all opportunities, she said, can come through the promise of permanent residency.
An elementary school student knows participation impresses her teachers; a high schooler fills out his financial aid application; a college student strategically selects his classes. Refugee students must often rely on relationships built with teachers or other students to learn certain lessons, traversing a structure built on inequitable foundation.
“These kind of unwritten rules of the game may be understood by longtime residents who have access to networks and generations of family members or mentors who can help them understand — often refugee students do not.”
Some 40% of 23- to 28-year-olds born in the U.S. graduate college. Refugees who entered the country before age 13 actually finished college at higher rates than the U.S. average, according to a working paper studying 2010 to 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
But, college completion rates for refugees entering after age 14 begin to steadily decline. Those entering at age 18 and 19 saw rates less than 20% in this study.
Dryden-Peterson says it’s pivotal for teachers to acknowledge specific refugee challenges, as well as helping them perform in the classroom. She knows barriers will continue outside it.
Khem Subedi knows that, too.
His organization constructed a Refugee Center in 2015. The Intermediate Unit 13 outfit was ultimately placed in a Lancaster middle school.
Among adult learning resources and family supports alike, one service doesn’t relate to legal forms or the latest assessment. Subedi coordinates something called “cultural navigation,” stretching from school expectations, absenteeism and dress codes, to understanding technology or discussing mental wellness.
“People get really confused, angry, frustrated, because they did not have this understanding in the first place,” said the former Bhutanese refugee, now community education coordinator. “Our cultural navigation is around all those small things that really make a bigger impact down the road.”
Subedi lived in a Nepali refugee camp for 19 years, waiting for resettlement. He knows it can be easy to forget what these children and families have been through.
“People look at them like, ‘Oh, a new family has arrived; new children are in school,’” he said. “But often people don’t understand what’s in the background. They might be coming from a warzone, badly traumatized… All of these things play a big role.”
Subedi was displaced while still in high school. In his culture, looking a teacher straight in the eye, shaking their hand, talking back, laughing, would all be considered inappropriate. Behaviors like these can be carried to the American classroom.
Where educators might assume a student is shutting down or even showing depressive symptoms, they can call on the Refugee Center, Subedi said, to meet with multilingual navigators and family members to dig below the surface.
His office is there to keep students and families on track, long after 90 days of official resettlement.
“There is hope anyone can do it,” he said simply. “But we need to just continue to focus on basics — strengthen your education, get credentials, get into the college.”
For that success, mastering English, simply understanding life in the U.S., educators must often stretch beyond their typical job description.
“I myself am a first generation born of a refugee and an immigrant,” Rowe said, now also a coach for other instructors. “So, I know really well how impactful those teachers are. In our family, they were lifelines. They were like gods and goddesses.”
The educator of over 20 years remembers facing an early classroom of students learning English as a second language.
She knew her own mother once had to flee Romania. Rowe asked her class, likely filled with both immigrants and refugees having escaped violence, to write about the greatest trial they’ve ever faced. Pencils scratched at paper set in front of them.
“Every single student in that ESL class wrote about how their greatest trial was coming here to the United States, having to go to school and learn English at the same time,” she said, shaking her head slowly.
“That’s what they chose to write about. It’s remarkable. But you know, it is a feat. It’s an amazing feat, what they do.”
Kelly Powers is a culture reporter for the How We Live team — covering race, culture and identity for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region. Contact her at email@example.com or (443) 694-0770, and follow her on Twitter @kpowers01.