At the Starfire Sports soccer field in Tukwila, 15-year-old Nabil Alsalkini is the only thing standing between a dozen of his summer schoolmates and the back of the goal.
“Give me a challenge!” he yells, as he intercepts yet another shot and throws it back.
Like his two dozen classmates in the International Rescue Committee’s summer school, Nabil has already seen plenty of challenges. He and his family came from war torn Syria via Jordan, arriving in the Pacific Northwest about a year ago.
And like many of his classmates who were fleeing war and oppression in other countries, they landed feet-first in the Tukwila School District.
Though Tukwila boasts one of the most diverse school districts in the nation, refugee families face obstacles that other immigrant families do not.
The summer school that Tukwila and the International Rescue Committee has offered for refugees for nearly a decade aims to help the students acclimate into their new lives.
This year ranged in age from kindergarteners to high school seniors, and came from countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
The five-week summer school not only covers English as a second language, but also familiarizes them and their families with life in the U.S. — government, the police department, local sports.
“Success would be being able to build better peer to peer relationships, and good student to teacher relationships. They are feeling more confident and secure about being in school,” said IRC School Readiness Coordinator Amanda Cook, who oversees the summer program and school-year programs to help families adjust to the United States.
“Some of our new kids now know where their middle school is, and where the library is,” she said.
These may seem like small details, but the topics in the summer program “give them a little ease going into the school year,” she said. “This can make a huge difference for their schooling.”
During the school year, refugee students get additional help through a patchwork of programs including the same English Language Learning classes and after school homework programs available to all students. But the summers, when other students are taking a break, are a perfect chance to catch up.
Refugee families who have fled wars and political oppression face big challenges as their children integrate into the school system. The kids’ schooling may have been interrupted, and the academic records may be missing or hard to track down. Plus they’ve gone through the trauma of fleeing their country under duress.
On top of that, the families also must learn to navigate a new school system that is often confusing, even to families who have been in the U.S. for a long time.
“If you come here from a situation like war, it’s difficult, and the challenges are greater,” said Clair Chean, Community Partnerships and Refugee Services Manager with the Tukwila School District.
Districts like Tukwila can access special funds to help refugees through the Refugee School Impact Grant, which the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement offers as part of its assistance for resettlement.
“A lot of these kids would just be at home during the summer… that’s a two-month road block in their education.”
Last year, the federal agency gave $625,000 to Washington state, which was spent on after school programs, teacher training and other programs that help students and families navigate the American school system.
Eleven school districts split the grant money, according to size of program and the need, said Pang Chang, of Schools Out Washington, the nonprofit organization that manages the Refugee School Impact Grants. Other districts include Highline, Kennewick, Seattle and Federal Way.
“We focus on communities with a high density of refugees who have been in the country three years or less,” she said.
“We also look at how many [students] they are able to serve,” she said, adding that direct service to the students are the priority in funding.
Chean said Tukwila also uses some of its school impact grant money to train teachers and staff on refugee issues. But he said it’s hard to quantify a typical dollar amount of school district help that any particular refugee family receives.
“Each one is so unique, each country is so different, even the experiences are so different,” Chean said.
The summer classes take the long summer break as an opportunity that otherwise might be lost, said IRC’s Cook.
“A lot of these kids would just be at home during the summer,” she said. “Especially for English Language Learners, it’s a big challenge because that’s a two-month road block in their education.”
IRC’s program in Tukwila offers intensive English Language Learning classes and also takes students on field trips, brings local guests such as police officers to class and demystifies college with field trips to campuses.
Despite the variety in ages and places of origin, the students work together to gain confidence in speaking English and learning about their community — and also connect with other students in their schools who are going through similar issues.
Nabil went to school in a refugee camp in Jordan before his family were cleared to come to the United States.
“All my grades in English were zero,” he said with a laugh.
That meant that as his family resettled to Tukwila, he entered school last year only speaking Arabic.
By chance, Nabil met another Arabic-speaking student: “One guy from Iraq helped me.”
But in IRC’s summer program, he was able to connect with lots of other students facing the same challenges.
Hangamah Mohammadi, 9, also could barely speak a word of English when her family first moved to the United States from Kabul, Afghanistan in December.
“She was saying, ‘My name is Hangama’ and nothing else,” said her father in the bright living room of their Tukwila apartment.
Near the end of the program earlier this summer, it was easy to get her going. She chatted freely about attending Cascade View Elementary in Tukwila, their family’s new apartment in Tukwila, and her favorite subject — mermaids.
“Mermaids swim all day and they go underwater,” Hangama says, mimicking a diving motion. “I can’t swim like a mermaid, but there’s another girl who can do that in our pool.”
And without being asked, she said she knows why her family had to leave Afghanistan.
“We had to leave because it was dangerous,” she said.
Her father, Esmatullah Mohammadi, was a computer science engineer in Kabul who worked with the U.S. military, which put him in the line of fire. He didn’t even tell his wife and children that they were leaving Afghanistan until he got the notification that they would go last December, for fear that they might accidentally leak the news.
“I had to tell my (extended) family to come visit me to say goodbye, because it was too dangerous for me to leave Kabul,” Mohammadi said.
In Afghanistan, Hangama was one of the top students in her class, so her father says he was glad to hear that the Tukwila program would offer daily immersion in English.
Mohammadi works as baggage handler at SeaTac, but he’s hoping to get a job in the IT field and establish his family in the United States.
“This is our country,” he said. “All that we’re doing is for this country.”