Reflections on Refugee Youth Project

By Magazine Staff

While volunteering for the Refugee Youth Project as part of service-learning classes taught by Elizabeth Schmidt, Ph.D., professor of history, students write reflections. Here are some of their thoughts, written for their classes and published here with their permission. (The children’s real names are not being used here.)

The first four entries were written by Will Kennedy, ′11, an international business major with a minor in French who is working as an English language teaching assistant in Beauvais, France.

Written by Will Kennedy, ‘11:

Feb. 1, 2010:

Khadir reminds me of myself at 10 years old. His relentless energy that bounces off the walls with him woke me up the second I met him. I had to contain my laughter whenever he horsed around because it brought back so many memories.

When Kursten asked me if I wanted to work with Khadir (prefacing this question with the fact that he was the wildest of the bunch) I said, “Absolutely!” She pointed over to Khadir’s table where he was throwing everything he could find onto the floor. Immediately I thought of my childhood and continuing family joke revolving around my fascination with breaking things and then saying, “I wrecked it,” with a large grin on my face.

At first, Khadir acted timid and avoided talking to me, but when I brought up football, he turned to me and we chatted it up the rest of the time. I asked him about where he was from, but he was a little unclear about this, saying he was from Egypt and Sudan. He came to America before he turned 1 year old, so I’m guessing his father, who came to America a year before Khadir, spent time in both countries, and that Bobby associates with both countries because of his father. When I return next Monday, I plan on finding out more about his past and his family, and I believe he will be much more open to talking about it since I will be a familiar face.

Khadir told me that the other students at his elementary school continuously poke fun at his last name. Although I forget his last name, I do remember it is quite a cool name, and I reiterated this numerous times to Khadir. Clearly this bullying greatly affects Khadir because when another boy at RYP made fun of Khadir’s last name, Khadir gave the boy a “love tap” on his face. Kursten (the RYP coordinator) and the other woman came over and we all talked about it and eventually the two boys apologized to each other.

Khadir and I were able to complete his homework, but it was not an easy task. Khadir just wanted to talk, but I felt responsible for the completion of his homework, so I had to bribe him with the possibility that I would bring in a football next time if he completed his homework (I have to check with Kursten about this). Khadir is smart. I got this vibe when we first started talking because he had a wit about him that is not normal for most 10-year-olds to have. My beliefs were confirmed when we started to work on his homework. He knew everything he had to do and how to do it, and began to test me, as if to say, “Are you really interested in helping him?” He would say the wrong answer to see if I was paying attention and then when I told him he was wrong he would shout out the correct answer before I could even finish the sentence.

It took us a while to finish, but it was tough because a lot kids were coming up to him while we were working, and naturally he became distracted. Also, I really cannot blame him for his lack of concentration; I would not want to do my homework right after a full day of school either.

I spent most the time observing Khadir, trying to figure out his personality and his mannerisms. I know I can help him, and I am going to. When the session was over, and we were walking towards the crosswalk, Khadir ran up behind me, grabbed my hand, and said, “Hey, we gotta hold hands when we cross the street!” Right then I knew that this tough, witty little kid was opening up to me and that this relationship is going to benefit us both in ways we do not even know yet.

April 12, 2010:

Today, we arrived before all the kids for the first time this entire semester. It was nice because Kursten and Moira were able to give us an idea of what they had planned for the day. We started with the exercise stations I had mentioned before in my past reflection, and I was at the boxing and squatting (an interesting combination) station. Originally, Kursten had the volunteers hold up their hands and the kids would use them as punching bags. I decided to add a little something extra to the drill, and began swinging fake hooks at the kids so they had to duck out of the way. They absolutely loved it.

Some of the boys would dodge out of the way so quickly that they fell down. They would start laughing, bounce up to swing again, and by the end of the station, all the kids who attended the Will Kennedy School of Boxing were huffing and puffing.

To be honest, Mariama had a stronger punch than most of the boys, and her stamina was much stronger than all of them. I put a lot of energy into the drill (for the boys I would shout out facetiously commands to hustle harder) and the kids matched my intensity, so afterwards, my hands did not feel too good.

Khadir had already done his homework, so we worked on an assignment that was a picture of a caterpillar that you had to color in by solving an addition equation and matching that answer with a specific color.

Moustapha didn’t have a volunteer working with him, so I told Khadir that I knew he was great at math so I would help Moustapha. Khadir didn’t complain at all, and I could tell in his face that he was proud of the praise I had given him.

Moustapha and I started with the other picture that had easier math. Eventually, he wanted to switch to the caterpillar picture because “that was what Khadir had.” Khadir was so welcoming in letting Moustapha come over and sit with him that it reminded me of the relationship I have with my little brother. It was real nice to see, and it also reminded me of the sense of family in many of the African communities we have discussed. I have come to really like that about these cultures because in the fast-paced American society, the sense of a larger family, being the community, has been lost a little.

Moustapha just wanted to color in the picture and the math was too hard for him, so I began watching Khadir work. He was able to solve some of the addition in his head, but he was relying mostly on figuring out the math on paper. I honestly believe Khadir is way above the learning curve for math, so I suggested that he try solving the entire set of problems in his head. I taught him the way I do it, and told him how I add the tens to the first number first, and then add the remaining one’s digit. It took him a few times, but he grasped it, and started doing the problems in his head with no problem. This was the first time I have been able to communicate a learning style I have picked up through my education to one of my students, and seen instant results. It was a cool feeling.

For the last half hour, we all went outside. Most of the kids hung around the very odd (but interesting) playground outside the church, but Khadir and three other boys went over to a hill and started wrestling. I waited to see if the coordinators said something but they didn’t. The other coordinator (I think she’s Asian) went over and just made sure they stopped when they got near the concrete at the bottom of the hill. Obviously, I went over to the hill and I ended up watching some of the best wrestling I have seen in a while. It put WWF to shame, and intrigued me just as much as when I watched my friend, who is a top-five wrestler in the nation, wrestle in the National Championships on ESPN. There were a few moments where one of the boys would get too rough and you had to tell him to calm down, but for the most part it was all in the name of letting off some steam and being a boy. That sense of community I felt between Khadir and Moustapha revealed itself to me again, and it just looked like a bunch of brothers roughhousing.

April 19, 2010:

Today, wrestling was first on the agenda. The basement of the church was being used for a conference, so we started outside. The boys were throwing each other down the hill, and then proclaiming that they were untouchable. They play extremely rough, and one would think that with the aggression they exhibit in the classroom, that the wrestling matches would become personal. Even when I’m wrestling my friends, most of the time, someone is needed to intervene because the matches get too intense. In the classroom, even the smallest trigger will cause a major conflict between boys, but outside on this hill, they display a self control that fascinates me. When someone lands on their head, the other boy will stop and show sincere concern for the injured boy. I’ve tried really hard to make sense of this, but I remain baffled. It could be that they are expending so much energy that they deviate from their normal short-tempered mentality, but either way it’s very interesting to watch.

We set up the exercise stations outside around the picnic area. I managed the push-ups station, and used the brick fence around the picnic area as a platform to do the push-ups. The kids loved being up on the bricks, and when it was time to switch stations, the next group would sprint to get a position on the bricks. I had to make sure that everyone got a chance to do his or her push-ups on the fence, but it all worked out smoothly.

At one point during the stations, Khadir and Thierno started arguing about something. I always wait and see if the boys will be able to reconcile their differences by themselves, but that rarely happens. I heard Thierno say something about Sudan to Khadir, so that’s when I decided to intervene. I held Thierno back as Khadir walked to a picnic table, and I asked Thierno why he would say something like that. He was too worked up to give me an answer, and eventually, Kursten came over to talk to the boys.

This is the reason I can’t explain the boys’ behavior when they wrestle. They can get so mad at each other and use such hateful words, so naturally, I would expect to see this behavior when they are wrestling and the testosterone levels are at their highest. Instead, it reveals itself when the boys are arguing about the pettiest of things. I guess boys will be boys.

After the exercise stations, we moved to a pair of classrooms on the second floor. Kursten prefaced our move to the classrooms, warning us that the kids don’t like the classrooms. We were all expecting mayhem, but homework time was relatively calm. Khadir and I worked on his vocabulary homework that has become clockwork for us. He has to write his spelling words in alphabetical order, make spelling pyramids, write sentences using the spelling words, and then find words that rhyme with the spelling words. Khadir likes when I write the title of each section before he does them, and I’ve found that my labeling of each section has become a minor form of motivation for Khadir. I think he views it as physical evidence that I am willingly helping him with his homework.

A couple times today, Khadir asked me if I was his brother, and every time I would respond, “Absolutely!” His question reminded of your description of the interactions between the older African boys and the boys at Upton when they took their field trip to the Walters Art Museum. The great sense of family in their community becomes so clear when Khadir asks me things like this, and it brings me so much joy to be incorporated into Khadir’s life like that. A few times when Khadir would look up at me and ask if his answer was correct, I would respond, “It sure is…brother.”

This whole experience has and will be incredible. I’m so excited to work with the kids in East Baltimore this summer, and I will most definitely continue to volunteer with RYP. My mom, who has been a teacher for 37 years, jokes and says, “Will, I know you want to make millions with your international business major, but you’re going to become a teacher.” If teaching is as rewarding as working with the kids at RYP, that’s fine with me.

April 26, 2010:

There was a funeral at the church this afternoon, so we were up in the classrooms on the second floor again. On top of this, the weather wasn’t cooperating, so we were unable to start outside and let the kids release some energy through wrestling or the exercise stations. The two hours were a little bit rough to say the least. All the volunteers were clearly tired, as the end of the semester is taking its toll, and even the coordinators seemed to mirror the dreary weather. Kursten and Moira must have planned for this because they organized the rooms in a specific fashion as to minimize conflicts.

The only boys in my room were Khadir, Lamine, and Moustapha. (It is worth noting that Moustapha might be the cutest/funniest kid in the world. He started singing the words “Hot Fat Mama” today and even Moira, who’s usually stern, couldn’t help but laugh.) I’ve noticed that although Khadir and Lamine talk a lot of trash, physical conflict rarely materializes between them. This has become more evident with each Monday that passes. Usually, the fighting occurs between the younger boys, so Kursten and Moira’s expertise exhibited itself in the organization of the rooms today.

Along came snack time, and with it a full plate of fried chicken, rice with gravy, and green beans. I wasn’t told specifically, but I believe there was just extra food from the funeral reception. Everyone, including the volunteers, got to eat this delicious meal. I have to mention that I am relatively broke and have no food, so I was ecstatic when they delivered the meal. At first, the kids wouldn’t touch the green beans so I told them that they should mix them with the rice and gravy so they taste better. I’ve come to understand the importance of greens so I have used this technique in the past to get them in my system. It worked perfectly for Lamine, but not so much for Khadir and Moustapha.

Overall, the kids loved the meal and Khadir proclaimed, “I wish homework was to watch TV, play video games, and eat chicken.” Amanda added, “I wish I had a refrigerator filled with chicken…and steak!” as she took a big bite out of the fried chicken leg. This was a great treat, and everyone enjoyed it.

When it came homework time, Khadir pulled out multiplication homework. I was able to get him to do one problem every five minutes because he kept turning away from it each time he completed a problem. I was beginning to get frustrated midway through the problem set, when I watched Khadir turn away and realized he really wasn’t doing anything. He was just giving me a hard time. I told him, “Khadir, I know you can do all these problems in five minutes so if you’re going to give me a hard time, I’m going to stop wasting my time, and go help someone else.” He did the rest of the problems without any interruptions.

When we were leaving, a bunch of the girls started showing me their handshakes. I showed them the handshake I have with one of my best friends that includes two slaps, a snap created by are hands pulling apart, and then a simultaneous regular snap. They loved it, and before I knew it, I was teaching this handshake to all the girls. The girls are great, and I wish I had been able to move around a bit more in terms of whom I worked with. But I understand that for Khadir, a positive male role model is vital in his learning how to control his incredible energy. I also will be going to the program (if time permits) during the summer after my work in East Baltimore, so I can ask if I can work with the girls then.

This has been my most rewarding experience as a teacher or service volunteer, and I thank you for marketing it so well because it has meant so much more to me than just a skipped paper. This service-learning project has set the foundation for my work this summer, and this is the first time in a while that I am going into a summer job with a completely positive outlook.

Written by Brittany McGhee, ′11:

Thursday at RYP, the kids went on a field trip to the farm. It was my first time going to the farm with them, although I had heard a lot about it from other volunteers who had gone previously.

When we got there the girls were working on decorating pumpkins and the boys were playing outside with the animals. It was so exciting to see how excited the boys were about the animals. I was very surprised at how fearless they were. They walked up to all the animals and touched and played with them.

Moustapha walked up to a horse that was five times taller and bigger than him and just began petting him. He said that earlier in the afternoon, they had fed the horses and he wanted to do it again. Moustapha is so little; it was very funny to see him standing at the feet of the large horse. As the horse moved its head from side-to-side, Moustapha ducked as if the horse was going to bump his head. It was so cute, because the horse was a good three feet above Moustapha, and there was no chance of contact.

Soon it was time for the boys and girls to switch and it was the boys’ turn to decorate their pumpkins. As I could have expected, they were not too excited about it. They wanted to carve the pumpkins, and were upset when told that the scissors were explicitly for cutting paper and not for carving.

I sat next to Khadir as he decorated his pumpkin. He did not want to use any paper, or glue, or cut-outs. He just wanted to draw on the pumpkin. He wouldn’t show me what he was doing as he was doing it, but once he was done, I was a little surprised. He drew a nice face on his pumpkin. He included all the parts, and even gave the man a mustache. It was a large mustache that curled at the ends.

After I complemented him on his pumpkin, he told me that he was a Frenchman. He said it was because of his mustache because French people usually had mustaches like that. I giggled at his innocence. I am not sure if I didn’t expect him to associate that common image with Frenchman. I remember when I was younger, I thought the same way. Whenever I saw French people depicted, whether it was in books (even textbooks) or in movies like The Little Mermaid, they had long mustaches that curled at the ends. I wondered where he learned that stereotype from. Did he pick it up recently? I feel like he did. I think that abroad children are given more accurate representations of what other cultures are like.

This made me wonder if people who come and live in the United States begin to pick up the ignorance that is often associated with “Americaness.” Lately, I have just have been thinking about all the reasons why America is harming these kids. I understand that they are safer here and they are free from whatever persecution they may have endured in their home. However, they have been brought to a place that does not welcome them. It tolerates them and makes accommodations for them, but does not always welcome them. They are being teased at school. They are put into neighborhoods that are not necessarily the safest and do not have the best schools, because the government is only willing to pay for their housing in these neighborhoods. They are made to feel ashamed about their heritage and being different. They are made to feel like outsiders (even within the African-American community) because of their religion. There are just so many factors in which I think this country works against them.

I am at a very conflicted point with how I feel about refugee law and citizen placement. I want to do some research and learn more about it and possibly work with the IRC (International Rescue Committee) as an intern next year.

Brittany McGhee, ′11, a global studies major with minors in history and French, is currently working with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as a refugee resettlement case manager for Catholic Charities in Santa Clara, Calif.

Written by Erin McDermott, ′10:

Today was a lot of fun. Lamine had very little homework, so we finished it quickly! Then, for the rest of the day we drew pictures together. The night before, RYP took the children to the Great Lantern parade and Lamine drew me a detailed picture of the monsters that he saw. They saw a man on stilts and one man chased Lamine. Aliou couldn’t stop laughing at Lamine’s face while he was running from the “monster man.”

It was great to hear the boys talking so animatedly, especially since their progress from last year is so apparent. In fact, when I think about it, last year they primarily spoke in Pulaar. I don’t think I’ve heard one word in Pulaar all year long. The boys talk in English, laugh in English, and even whisper secrets in English. Although Lamine is still struggling with English, the other boys at our table are really catching on.

Lamine and Yacine love to read everything that they can. They want to know what every word they can’t read is. I think that as wonderful a thing this is, it must be disheartening for Lamine. He really struggles with all reading lessons. I know he’s smart and I expect that one day it will just click for him and make sense. When this day happens, I know he will be so proud of himself. In the meantime, however, I think that the best thing for him to do is see the other boys embracing reading and hopefully he will eventually do so as well. Because Lamine is more strong-willed and stubborn than the other boys, it’s harder to even get him to work on reading.

I have a study abroad meeting on Wednesday, and I let Lamine know what it was about. I have realized very recently how much I’m really going to miss the children next semester. They’ve been a huge part of my life for over a year now. When I’m having a bad day, I look forward to their smiles cheering me up.

It’s interesting to reflect on how much they’ve impacted my life. I’m sure they have no idea. If it weren’t for them, I may never have realized my passion for helping immigrants and I probably would never have gotten the great internship that I had this summer if it hadn’t been for my work with the Refugee Youth Project. It’s funny how things work out.

Erin McDermott, ‘10, a global studies major with a concentration in African studies and minors in sociology and gender studies, is pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy, with a focus on immigration policy, at Johns Hopkins University.

Written by Megan Kelly, ′10:

Being the oldest of 19 grandchildren and previously volunteering at St. Mary’s School of the Assumption student-teaching kindergarten, I have definitely had a wide experience with children. However, I was certainly surprised by several items presented on the first day at RYP.

The kids were all unexpectedly affectionate, giving hugs at the beginning, during, and after the RYP session. I was completely floored by their level of intelligence, often needing little to do the actual homework problems minus the reminder to focus and pay attention to their own work. Many of the children speak three languages fluently and I was impressed with their understanding of English, conjugation of verbs, and math skills. The kids’ high level of energy and difficulty focusing was no surprise, but at points overwhelming. However, the kids were certainly entertaining and provided definite insight into the topics discussed in class.

I found several correlations between specifics of ethnic group cultures and their prevalence within RYP. Family as protection was certainly evident with obvious hierarchy of ages between siblings. The two sisters I worked with mainly were Fatoumata and Penda. Fatoumata, the older of the two, was constantly trying to control her sister and pointing out answers on her homework and controlling her food.

When I was working on flashcards with Penda, Fatoumata would shout out the answers, greatly frustrating Penda. However, Penda never gave in to her frustration, however annoyed she may have felt.  She seemed to accept her role as below her “elder.” There was also certainly a tremendous amount of respect by younger students for older. Whenever the older students would act out, it seemed to allow an unspoken sense of permission for the younger students to act out as well.

References of speaking French and Pulaar were also made. I did also notice the facial markings many students had which as we talked about represent the fluidity of ethnic groups. Most of the children have cuts near the eyes to identify group to which they belong and is no doubt representative of the importance of kinship.

One item that struck me in particular was a comment made by Ramatoulaye, one of the older girls, who was described to me by one of the other RYP volunteers, who had already volunteered before, as “wise.” She said that all the girls that come to volunteer have the same hair. At first, I thought how funny that is because the girl I was there with had red hair. However, Ramatoulaye further explained her comment by saying we all have long, straight hair and that she wished she had hair like mine.

I was taken aback by this, because her generalization of Loyola volunteers made me think about what generalizations I made about her culture. It also made me sad to think that a certain level of exposure to American culture made her envy something so seemingly arbitrary and something in which she has that is beautiful.

It was slightly daunting helping the children cross the street in order to send them on the rest of the way home in a neighborhood that I myself was not fully comfortable in. Yet, despite whatever frustration I felt during the two hours there, after I left I could not stop smiling. I found myself at times trying to be more serious during the session but it was difficult when the children were so utterly fascinating and compelling. In week one I was struck by many items within RYP, but overall by the level of sophistication and compassion that these children, so young, are able to convey.

Megan Kelly, ′10, a global studies major with a minor in studio art, is pursuing a Master’s in Social Work at the University of Southern California.

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