When 19-year-old Yashoda Khanal moved to Kent with her family almost three years ago, the thing that shocked her most on her first day at Kent-Meridian High School were the floors.
The white linoleum floors in the cafeteria and the sprawling carpet in the classrooms were unfamiliar. Khanal was accustomed to mud floors lined with straw mats within the refugee camp in Nepal where she spent the first 17 years of her life.
Her family was forced out of Bhutan from early 1990s until three years ago, when their application to move to the U.S. was approved by the International Organization for Migration. They were placed in Kent.
Khanal participated in a panel discussion that followed an advance screening of “A Place in the World,” a documentary about a charter school in a suburb of Atlanta that serves refugee youth.
The screening was just in time for World Refugee Day, which was established by the United Nations in 2000 as a day to recognize people who are forced from their homes because of ongoing violence and conflict.
The story told in “A Place in the World,” about the obstacles faced by refugee youth trying to assimilate to everyday things in American culture, is echoed in Khanal’s experience. And the approaches taken by the charter school in Atlanta are also largely mirrored within the Kent community, which has experienced an explosion of its minority and refugee populations in recent years.
Beth Farmer, a counselor at Lutheran Community Services International Counseling Program and a member of Monday night’s panel said the rapid growth of minority and refugee groups in Kent can be traced back to Seattle’s tech boom in the 1980s. According to Farmer, Seattle-area resettlement agencies used to place individuals and families in Seattle’s Central District and Rainier Valley. But after the tech boom, when property values shot up and rentals were harder to come by, resettlement agencies had to set their sights on cheaper neighborhoods.
“People went further and further afield to try to find places that had affordable housing,” Farmer said.
They found that affordable housing in places like Kent and neighboring Tukwila – which was the most diverse school district in the nation in 2006.
Today, the Kent School District’s 28,000-student population speaks a combined 138 languages has surpassed Tukwila to be most diverse school district in the state, according to Superintendent Edward Vargas.
“How lucky we are that our school mirrors our future, and mirrors our global society,” Vargas said during the screening on Monday.
Vargas said there are currently 700 refugee students in the Kent School District. Many of them visit Clair Chean, at Kent’s Refugee Transition Center. At the center, students can get help with homework, practice reading out loud, and play and interact with other youth.
Chean said that he recently watched two second graders – one from Afghanistan and the other from Burma – reading picture books together at the center. Even they struggled to communicate in English, their only common language Chean said they played together just like normal kids do.
“This is how the U.N. is and how it should be. We have our own little United Nations,” he said.
The struggles faced by the refugees that Chean encounters every day are exactly what World Refugee Day was established to recognize. The UN reports that there are 43.7 million refugee and internally displaced people worldwide, and 80% of them are women and children.
Farmer said that, although many people incorrectly connect refugee families who arrive in the U.S. with the controversy that surrounds illegal immigration, the act of welcoming oppressed individuals into this country is something that can be traced back to its founding. Just like the pilgrims who wanted to escape religious persecution, she said, refugees also leave their home countries in search of freedom and safety.
“Historically,” Farmer said, ”it’s very American to have people coming to our shores to make a better life for themselves and their family.”
For more on Washington’s refugee population, check out The Common Language Project’s radio series Refugees in Puget Sound: Navigating a New Home in the Northwest online, and airing on KUOW this week.
Look for a public screening of A Place in the World coming to Seattle this Fall.
Allison Int-Hout is a contributor to the Seattle Globalist and a recent grad from the UW journalism program. She is (mostly) fluent in Spanish and looks forward to adding more pins to the world map on her wall.