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As the political debate over refugees in America heats up during this political season, this series explores the experiences of refugees who are settling, and have settled, in Virginia, and the programs that provide services for them. The Harrisonburg and Charlottesville areas lead the way in refugee resettlement in Virginia. Harrisonburg is second only to Northern Virginia in the number of resettled refugees, which numbered 260 in 2013.

Harrisonburg High Mentoring Program Guides Refugee Kids

Remember high school?  Even if those were great years for you, there were certainly times when you felt a little lost, or left out.  Imagine going to high school in another country, with another language, and another culture.  Oh, and you may also be carrying trauma from some horrific things you witnessed in your home country.  WMRA’s Jessie Knadler has the story of a Harrisonburg High School program that pairs refugee students with others who have been there.

Guess what is the second most common foreign language behind Spanish spoken at Harrisonburg city schools. Give up? It’s Arabic. Eleven percent of students come from Arab speaking homes.

Harrisonburg’s school system is really where you see the city’s status as an immigration hub come to life. More than one out of every three students are identified as limited English speakers. Within that population, kids come from 47 different countries with more than 48 languages spoken. Behind the U.S., the majority of students are born in Iraq and Honduras.

High school is already kind of a nightmare: peer pressure, academic pressure, identity issues, body image issues. Now add to that the stress, the language barriers, the trauma of being a refugee from a war torn country and you get an idea of how difficult it can be to navigate high school.

ALI:  Since I was a kid there was a war in Baghdad. It was a really big war.

This is Ali. He’s 19 and from Iraq. Ali’s father was granted asylum to come to the United States, but he had to leave his family behind. Ali says he was shot at when it was discovered his father had gone to the U.S.

ALI:  We [were] sleeping and waking up with bombs and shooting and people get killed everyday.

Ali hadn’t seen his father for five years until Ali and his brother were finally able to join him in Harrisonburg a year and a half ago. His father, who was a teacher in Baghdad, now works at a turkey processing facility.

ALI: Yeah, I miss my country so much. I had friends. I had family. I was there for 18 years, and you can’t just leave your country and forget about it.

Laura Feichtinger McGrath takes me into an office and flips through a stack of files of new students to the high school.

LAURA FEICHTINGER McGRATH:  This one is a refugee from Ecuador. She is from El Salvador. She is from Honduras.  She is from Mexico. He is from Iraq. He’s a returning student from New York…

She’s the ESL – that’s English as Second Language – Coordinator for all Harrisonburg city schools. Her title is a bit of an understatement. Because although she’s tasked with making sure kids enrolled in the ESL program – which represents some 10 percent of the total school population of 1400 – are taught English, some of these kids are dealing with incredibly complex issues. It’s what makes her job both rewarding and challenging.

FEICHTINGER-McGRATH: We have some students who are joining family for the first time in 10, 15 some of them 17 years.  We have students who have seen their friends / family executed, killed, bombed, all sorts of things, some of whom have had really traumatic journeys into the United States. There are a lot of feelings of abandonment from some of our students, some of our students have experienced sexual violence.

A lot of immigrant kids end up taking on very adult responsibilities.

FEICHTINGER-McGRATH:  I have students who are as young as 11 and 12 who help their parents with mortgages …I have no idea how these kids are negotiating that. Which is interesting because then we throw them a multiple choice test and say that they’re not successful but the reality is they’re negotiating real life meaningful experiences.

To help refugee students integrate into the high school, a pilot program called Peer Leaders was launched last year using funding from the Harrisonburg Refugee Resettlement Office. It’s a mentoring program in which new students are paired with students who were themselves refugees. Peer leaders are given three days of training in basic counseling—how to be an active listener, how to ask questions, and, crucially, when to refer a problem to an adult.

FEICHTINGER-McGRATH:  We don’t want kids to carry adult burdens on their backs.

ALI:  When I came here, I was really scared. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know the language. I don’t know anyone.

One day, a Kurdish girl approached Ali in the hallway and asked him in Arabic if he was alright. It was a small gesture that meant a lot, to know that someone from his culture was looking out for him. He joined Peer Leaders so he could repeat this kindness to incoming Arab students.

ALI: There was a couple, when they came here I took them to classes. I told them some of the rules. I told them, like, they need help with a teacher, with a counselor, with anything, I’m here to help.

The Peer Leader program has been successful on an ad hoc basis. These are teenagers. It can be difficult to get them to commit to a mentorship program on top of everything else they’re dealing with.

FEICHTINGER-McGRATH:  They don’t know how to articulate all the time what their issues are and then they don’t realize -- adults don’t always realize -- the extreme issues that might be happening in a high school, especially in a high school like ours.

It’s easy to assume that the stream of refugees at Harrisonburg High is the result of the current global migration crisis. But the demographics have been like this for 15 years. The countries of strife may have changed – Bosnia and Russia, to Iraq and Honduras today – but the human beings seeking refuge do not.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag