This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Sonia Giebel
In January 2013, Aron and Mussie Tesfay had just arrived in Philadelphia from a refugee camp in Uganda. They needed to find a school. Neither they nor their parents had any idea what to do.
The 17-year-old twin brothers arrived in a city where the help available to settle them in school is scattershot, and where the cultural and linguistic barriers are hard to navigate. This is especially true for older students who need to find a high school.
“It’s a decentralized process,” said Neeta Patel, a long-time advocate for immigrant resettlement and board member of Asian Americans United. She said that few English language learners and refugee students get into charter schools: “Students arrive at all different times so they miss deadlines, and there’s no accountability.”
According to the census, immigrants have increasingly been settling in Philadelphia; they now make up 12 percent of the city’s population. This influx, which includes many families from Southeast Asia and Africa, includes children of school age who bring with them language and cultural differences that the overburdened District must address.
For the immigrants themselves, the process of finding a school is intimidating.
Life in a refugee camp
Aron’s and Mussie’s mother is from Eritrea, their father from Ethiopia. Due to political unrest, the family was forced to resettle in Uganda in a refugee camp when the boys were 9. Their native languages are Tigrinya and Amharic.
In Uganda, they first attended boarding school but found it difficult.
“We were the only Ethiopians there, so it wasn’t easy to cooperate with other students, and there was a lot of teasing and bullying,” Aron remembered.
The twins then transferred schools twice, first to an underfunded and under-resourced school five miles from their camp, to which they had to walk every day, and then to a different school in a nearby town.
At 17, the boys faced another transition when their family moved to Philadelphia.
They were among the lucky ones.
The boys’ family worked with the U.S. State Department’s Refugee Resettlement program, which randomly placed them with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
With the help of HIAS, a local nonprofit that works with immigrants on resettlement, they enrolled in South Philadelphia High School. HIAS helps students find a school, fills out the paperwork, and monitors their progress.
HIAS staff accompanied the twins to the District office. There, the boys, who had studied English since they moved to Uganda, passed their language assessment and cleared the vaccination and identification requirements. HIAS also accompanied the twins to Southern and spoke with school officials.
Without HIAS, Mussie said, “I don’t think we would have found it easy to enroll in school.”
The enrollment process is complex, asking families for a lot of documentation, time, and patience. Patel, a former HIAS staffer who helped coordinate school enrollment and education services for local agencies, said that the process has long been fraught with difficulty.
“You wait two, three hours even if you have an appointment,” she said “Parents are bewildered; then there’s the paperwork, immunization records, residency, guardianship. … The list just goes on.”
And once the student was enrolled, there was often miscommunication between the District and the school, she said. Students would receive a letter from the District stating their placement, but that wasn’t always enough to ensure smooth enrollment.
“Even if you have the letter, the school doesn’t acknowledge them, they’re not rostered [into classes], they don’t have a homeroom, and the teacher doesn’t expect them,” Patel said. “It’s already a nightmare enough to go into a new school if you don’t have a teacher who will prepare you, assign you a buddy.”
Patel said that refugees are entitled to three months of services, but there are only three state-sponsored refugee resettlement agencies in the city, including HIAS. Other social service agencies struggle to get resources to meet the diverse needs of people who come from all over the world, she said.
Immigrants who are not refugees are entitled to some services, like free education, but not necessarily support with enrollment.
“We’re connected to a small group of students – and most immigrant families don’t have access [to our resources],” said J.T. Kendall, the refugee case manager at HIAS who worked with the boys.
That situation has only gotten worse due to the District’s financial crisis, because the status of counselors – who can be an added support for immigrant students – is unstable.
Kendall recommends that families search out services outside of the school.
“Kids and parents need to find programs – like Upward Bound or clubs at public libraries – but they don’t always realize that.”
When Aron and Mussie started their junior year at Southern, it was different from what they had expected.
Aron said that he had heard that education in the United States could be much better than where he came from, but that it depended on what school you attended.
They found Southern to be challenging – but not academically.
“There were big problems with academics and the students,” Aron said. “Some students were extremely disrespectful to their teachers. Other students didn’t want to learn and we want to learn.”
They said they felt stereotyped by school staff.
“I personally felt like they judged our capabilities because we came from another country. We felt like they underestimated us,” Aron recalled. Many of their classes repeated curriculum that the boys had already completed in Uganda.
This is a common problem for immigrants, according to Kendall. Some, like the Tesfay twins, come here well-educated, with good English skills – ahead of their American peers in some subjects. Others are nearly illiterate in their native language and speak little or no English.
The School District, however, doesn’t always make the distinction. This situation is often complicated by age and regulations. For example, 18-year-old immigrants may be placed in the 9th grade. Or, because students no longer qualify for public education after 21, some students are pushed through classes they may not be prepared for, simply because the school wants them to graduate before they turn 22.
The importance of language
Though the twins’ English is excellent, it’s clear that it is not their first language. Aron noted that whenever he makes phone calls, he has to repeat every sentence.
Without fluent English, acclimating to a new schooling environment can be terrifying for students and their families. Kendall said that most families he deals with “don’t have much English at all.”
While HIAS can help coordinate placement, once school begins, the family still needs assistance to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers.
“In other countries, the teacher [is the authority]. Here, you have to ask teachers about what to do after school, and ask the secretary questions and make sure your kid is in the right place,” Kendall noted. This isn’t common knowledge to all families.
So, Kendall and his team also work with students’ families to ensure integration in the community, whether that’s helping to provide GED and English courses for parents – as Kendall did for Aron’s and Mussie’s mother – or simply highlighting valuable resources.
“I always make sure they ask for interpretation over the phone. Sometimes parents are scared because secretaries don’t speak their language, but interpretation is one of their rights.”
Next step: College
Aron and Mussie are now seniors at the Academy at Palumbo, a selective-admission school. HIAS was instrumental in their transfer process, ensuring that the boys’ credits from Uganda and their semester at Southern were counted. With the bureaucratic maze now behind them, they are focusing on applying to colleges.
Aron is interested in the medical field, Mussie in engineering. College presents yet another transition, but the boys are prepared.
“I’m both excited and nervous, but I’m excited that I’ll be completing my school and going to college,” Aron said. “I also know it’s not going to be easy.”
Sonia Giebel, a Haverford College senior, was a Notebook intern this past summer.
Disclosure: Since March, Neeta Patel has been the Notebook’s associate director for operations, a position unrelated to her work with other organizations regarding immigrant rights.
This article appears in the Notebook‘s annual Fall Guide to High Schools, which comes out next week.