Nonprofit Helps Refugee Children Transition To School In Houston

From language barriers to learning gaps, children of refugee families can face many challenges in adjusting to American school systems. One nonprofit in Houston is working to help them with a free tutoring program.

By Syeda HasanJuly 10, 2015 7:20 am|

This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media. 

Twelve-year-old Promise Rai is getting a lesson in multiplication. Twice a week, he attends the ASPIRE Tutorials to get a little extra help with his homework.

Rai is one of about 60 kids enrolled in the after-school program for refugee children. He and his family moved to Houston from Nepal about two years ago. When he started school here, Rai says he felt shy speaking English with his teachers and classmates.

“It’s like when I talk to the friend with the English words, I’m confused what to say and what to not,” Rai says.

Thousands of refugees come to Houston each year, but adjusting to life in America can pose unexpected challenges. In Nepal, Rai’s teacher taught lessons on a chalkboard, pointing out important words with a bamboo stick. All of a sudden, he found himself completing classwork on a computer and taking his first standardized test.

“It’s like you have to answer the question,” he says. “You have the full story you have to read, and it’s too hard for me to understand.”

A few months later, Rai began attending the ASPIRE tutorials, and he says he found the help he needed. The program is hosted by the Houston chapter of the nonprofit Sewa International. Volunteers work with elementary school students, guiding them through homework, reading picture books and playing math games.

Classes are small, designed to give each child individual attention. One goal is to get refugee students on track to pass Texas STAAR tests. The annual reading and math assessments begin in third grade.

Kavita Tewary is the project coordinator for the Houston Chapter of Sewa International.

“It’s a huge, huge task for these kids to adjust and cope, and some of them are really bright,” Tewary says. “It’s just that they don’t understand what they’re being asked.”

She says many refugee children attend the tutorials because they don’t get much educational support at home. Their parents are often busy working and just trying to survive in a new country.

“But the children are the ones who are the hidden victims I feel sometimes, because they are dealing with the school, and the parents cannot advocate on behalf of these kids because they don’t have the skills,” Tewary says.

Luckily, most students don’t have to go far to get that extra help. The ASPIRE Tutorials are held in a unit at the Los Arcos apartment complex in southwest Houston. The neighborhood is home to many refugees, including the Rai family.

Promise’s father, Jeet Rai, works the night shift at a plastic manufacturing company, so he doesn’t get much time to help Promise with his schoolwork. But he has noticed his son’s progress.

“Before he was not speaking English that much, but nowadays he speaking,” Rai says. “I think they’re just doing great. He’s reading, he’s writing, everything is good nowadays.”

Sewa is working to bring that support to even more refugee children. The group recently received a $25,000 grant to expand the ASPIRE tutorials. Tewary says the funds will go toward purchasing supplies, hiring translators and taking the students on field trips.