Out of Africa and into a new world

African refugee students at Grant Elementary bring new meaning to the phrase 'culture shock'
Saturday, January 3, 2009 | 9:07 a.m. CST; updated 9:41 a.m. CST, Sunday, January 4, 2009
Iratubona Desire points out where he is from on a map in his teacher's room at Grant Elementary School. Desire is one of nine African refugee students at Grant.

COLUMBIA — On a Monday morning in December, it takes a few minutes for the fifth-graders at Grant Elementary School to settle into art class. Today, they are finishing up their holiday cards for cancer patients.

Desire is focused, head low, working in great penciled detail on a drawing of houses and a road; he has already finished his holiday card with a watercolor snowman on the front. He briefly answers his neighbor's questions before returning to his picture. Drawing with pencil is his favorite.


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Art is expressive, but for Desire — pronounced "De-SEER" — it is also the easiest form of communication. Iratubona Desire, called Desire by his classmates, is one of nine African refugees who attend Grant: Six come from Tanzania, two from Somalia and one from Rwanda. There are three others whose families fled Somalia but spent time in Yemen, in the Middle East, before coming to the U.S.

The 12 students at Grant reflect a growth in the number of African refugees in Columbia. In the past five years, Dan Murphy, the education and civics coordinator for Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbia, has enrolled about 50 African refugees in the Columbia Public School District. Students at Grant, like Desire, are using the language resources available, but are still struggling with full assimilation into American life. Additional methods, like art, can aid the process.

Paxton Keeley Elementary School has the most African refugee students in the district, Murphy said. Grant has the second-largest group because many of the families live in public housing within its boundaries. In the past year, African refugee students from Paxton Keeley have transferred into Grant because their families have also moved into the public housing complex, Trinity Place.

Desire and his family of seven moved to the city in 2007 from a camp in Tanzania. His family, originally from Burundi, speaks that country's native language, Kirundi. When they were placed in Columbia, no one in the family spoke English.

Because of its immigration facilities, Columbia receives refugees from all over the world, Murphy said, but the community has seen a recent influx from politically unstable African countries. The refugees are mostly from central African countries, such as Sudan, Rwanda, Congo and Burundi, and also from Somalia, in east Africa. Refugee and Immigration Services, which functions under the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, offers one Swahili translator, Martha Quentin, but Desire's family has to share her time with the other refugee families. Grant principal Beverly Borduin said that because Quentin is not always available, communication between parents and teachers is more challenging.

With its proximity to MU, the school at South Garth Avenue and East Broadway often receives international students whose parents teach at or attend the university. The inability of some refugee parents to speak or to fully understand English, however, is a new obstacle for the Grant faculty. Refugee and Immigration Services also has a harder time finding jobs for refugeesin the difficult economy. Many of the refugee parents work in service-oriented jobs such as maintenance, hospitality, factory work and housekeeping. These jobs specifically are in lower demand now that employers are reducing positions, said Murphy, who taught English before beginning his work with immigration services five years ago. 

Songs as icebreakers

The dozen refugee students at Grant make up the largest group Peg Hurley, the school's English Language Learner teacher, has worked with at an elementary school level. The number jumped from two students in the past school year. Some of the younger students never attended school before and have to adapt to formal schooling. All need help with English. As a result, teachers and students alike often add alternative learning methods, such as art and music, to help assimilate the students into their new world.

"The songs help a lot — they’re kind of an icebreaker," Hurley said. "When you’re singing with the group, no one really knows if you’re saying the words right or not." She works with 30 ELL students overall. Currently, half of them are from countries in Asia such as South Korea, China, India and Bangladesh, and almost half are from Africa, she said. A small number are from Mexico and Brazil. Hurley finds that rhymes help students remember and learn English even when speaking is slow to develop.

"(Desire) knew the whole 'Clean-Up Song' last year, but he would never speak," Hurley said.

Desire also works on his English with Doug Hunt, a retired MU English professor and a former Grant parent. Hunt first encountered Desire in Hurley's ELL class. When he was helping in her class, he thought that the younger students seemed to be progressing quickly. But he said that when he looked at older children, like Desire and his friend Gire, he thought, "They aren't going to make it."

Gire Ngzihayo, like Desire, is from Burundi and is ahead of his friend in oral comprehension and communication. Hunt noticed when he began volunteering last fall that Desire relied on Gire as his translator, and therefore did not progress as quickly as the other ELL students. As Desire fell behind, his frustration visibly mounted and he began to shut down. He would not speak and sometimes would not make eye contact. Hunt thinks the root of Desire's problems is a communication barrier.

"He is a very bright kid facing a very serious problem," Hunt said.

In mid-September, Hunt began to work with Desire one-on-one for two or three hours each school day. Hunt soon added an additional lesson before school. Desire, who walks seven blocks to school for the early lessons, began to arrive 15 to 30 minutes early.

"Desire is so eager to learn English that he would spend all day learning it," Hunt said.

Taking a 'word walk'

At 7:45 a.m. on the Monday after Thanksgiving, a children’s choir rehearses in Grant’s gymnasium. Teachers walk students through the hallways and to their classrooms. Desire and Hunt sit at a table at the end of the school hallway. They have to sit close just to hear each other over the sounds of a school coming back from holiday break.

In each lesson, Hunt brings the book "English Through Pictures" to help Desire with his English. After a few minutes of work, they take a break for a "word walk," where they read the various posters in the hall and identify the posters’ words. This is a way Desire can mark his improvement because he is able to identify more words each time. This morning he read 25 words.

When words get in the way for Desire, he is able to express them through his drawing, Hunt said. In one of the first interactions Hunt had with Desire, Desire said, "In Africa, we make bike in tree."

Hunt did not understand what the boy meant so Desire started to draw it out for him — a scooter, carving tools and a piece of wood. His intricate illustrations outlined the step-by-step process his brother took to make him a scooter.

The time and attention the African refugees need is demanding on Grant faculty. "We’re used to having international students, but usually they come knowing the alphabet, and they know about school," Hurley said. "They have read books in their own language, but these children haven’t. So it was a special challenge to work with them and figure out that we needed to have more time and more people.”

Hunt said, "All I see is hard work and good will with inadequate resources."

Although the resources are tight, Hurley is happy to have more assistance in her ELL classes. Last school year, she had one volunteer; now she has four. She divides her classes into grade sections and skill levels. In her nonreading class for children in first through third grades, Hurley works with seven African refugees including Desire’s little sister, Jeanine, and Gire’s little sister, Rebeka Nishimwe. The class meets every day during independent learning time so that the refugee students do not miss a critical part of the school day and for an additional two hours a week in Grant's media center.

In the ELL class the Monday after Thanksgiving, students in the nonreading class work at four stations. Jeanine listens to "My Day," a book on tape, at one of the stations. She said her favorite part of class is writing. Her favorite part of school though, is the ice cream she gets in the cafeteria.

At another station, students work with Hurley to identify pieces of winter apparel. The students then reproduce the items they just learned through their own drawings of snowmen. This is the second year some of the refugee students have seen snow. Although the students may still be adapting to the Missouri climate, some enjoy the cold weather; Rebeka said she likes playing outside in the snow.

Learning jokes, learning games

In the same way that some of the refugee students know what to expect at the beginning of winter, they are growing accustomed to life in the classroom. Although they still rely on ELL classes to help their English, they are becoming more of a presence in their other classes.

"The boys (Gire and Desire) have been more outward socially," said John Nies, Gire and Desire's fifth-grade teacher. "They’ve been involved with making jokes, humor. It’s easier to get them involved."

Nies said that Gire and Desire are very much a part of the class. Although they cannot participate in every discussion, Nies said, "Whenever they raise their hands, like in a math discussion, I make it a point to call on them and then make their answers relative to the discussion. It’s always a positive thing for them to speak up in the classroom."

“They’re both very very bright and that’s evident ... when we play math games. They pick up on the rules quick," Nies said. "They’re able to play even though they can’t formalize their ideas and concepts in English. They can still demonstrate it through pictures and playing the games and things like that.”

Nies said he gives Desire and Gire assignments that involve more pictures than their classmates. For Desire, in particular, pictures help him understand the material. Hunt noticed it, too, in his sessions with Desire and said the boy responded most to learning visually.

"He’s a truly amazing artist," Nies said.

Desire is also a perfectionist. For example, when Nies assigned him a map project, it took several drafts before he was satisfied with the results.

"The first one he did would have received a wonderful grade from me," Nies said, "but he threw it away anyway and kept working on another one, until it was his best work, according to him."

Desire's perfectionism creates an additional obstacle in learning English. "Seeing that other people communicated so easily, including Gire, Desire was even more reluctant to expose his inadequacies by talking," Hunt said. Desire has the language of a much younger child, which, combined with his perfectionism, creates a resistance to communication, Hunt said. "He clams up when he's frustrated."

Art helps Desire bridge his communication gap. "They (Desire and Gire) may not understand all of the concepts we learn, but they usually get more work done than other fifth-graders," said art teacher Suzzie Thomas. She said she has noticed a shift in Desire's work: When he arrived last year, he painted and drew buildings and landscapes from his own culture; gradually, he began to shift to images such as televisions and computers.

In his classroom, Nies also tries to help his refugee students assimilate. “I’ll often ask the classroom who’s willing to be volunteer or a partner with Desire and pretty much the whole class raises its hand," Nies said. "All the other kids are willing to help."

Assimilation, however, ends with the school day, Hurley said. Part of it is that refugee parents are also in the early stages of learning English. The children are not speaking English once they get home, she said.

Social divides also add to the overall adjustment to American life. A lot of it is based on the difference in neighborhoods, Hurley said. The Catholic Charities, which offers aid to the African refugees families, has placed them in public housing off North Providence Road. The refugee children do not have opportunities to play with other Grant students who live south of Broadway, Hurley said. At school, the children tend to stick to neighborhood friendships.

"The neighborhood differences pose a problem to assimilate the two cultures," Hurley said. "We're trying to find new ways to solve that."

Borduin and other faculty see an eagerness from refugee parents to be involved in school life. Grant brings in translators for parent-teacher conferences so that African refugee families as well as other international families can be included. 

It is a hard process to get these translators, Borduin said. There are only two paid Swahili translators in Columbia: One is hired through Columbia Public Schools, and Martha Quentin works with the Catholic Charities' Refugee and Immigration Services. Another translator volunteers through the school system, Borduin said.

Each year, Grant invites its parents and students to a potluck dinner. This year, two refugee mothers from Somalia had to put in a lot more effort than other parents. The mothers walked home from their workplace near Columbia Mall to get their children, then to school for the potluck — picking up a food item on the way.

"To me," Borduin said, "this showed just how much they wanted to be there that night."

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Ray Shapiro January 3, 2009 | 12:32 p.m.

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