The number of refugee children in some Texas schools is actually going down – but it has nothing to do with President Donald Trump’s latest action on refugees.
To understand why these children leaving is a big deal, it may serve us well to understand why their arrival was also a big deal.
Janna Griffin is principal at Doss Elementary. The school is in a fairly affluent, mostly white neighborhood of Austin.
“You know? When we first got refugees – I think a lot of us didn’t really know what that meant,” Griffin says.
She didn’t know – for instance – that kids coming into her school could be from 39 different countries or that they could speak languages such as Swahili and Pashto – languages the school district was not ready to accommodate during the first influx of arrivals three years ago.
“I think we first thought – oh, they’ve been displaced for a little while – we met families that had been living in refugee camps in tents for 15 years,” she says.
Refugee families challenged all of Griffin’s pre-conceived ideas. And the refugees themselves struggled to adapt. They experienced deep cultural shock.
The community at Doss Elementary also struggled – it experienced what might be called growing pains. And like the older sibling of a new baby – those already enrolled felt displaced and overcrowded.
The overcrowding was real. Doss was built to accommodate 500 kids but it held almost twice that. While only 50 of those students were refugees – some American parents felt a little put out. They felt like they had to teach refugee parents everything about life in the U.S. Even things like where to park and where not to park at the school. And it was exhausting. It was tough. But then, things started to get better.
“What happened was a strong response from our community saying ‘hey, we can handle this – what can we do?’” Griffin says.
They created networks from scratch. One parent who is a University of Texas professor and an expert in Middle Eastern languages created a partnership where UT students served as translators. An American child realized refugee children had no bikes for ‘bike to school days.’ So he organized a drive and got bikes and helmets for all 50 of his refugee peers. A teacher started an after-school program for refugee and non-refugee children.
Three years later the program, called Mosaic, still helps kids connect through games, song and dance.
That’s where Shookria and Thalia hang out. The girls are so small they both fit on the same chair.
“I didn’t have any friends at first – then she made me a friend. Well, I’m a friend with Shookria because she’s from a different place,” the girls say.
Shookria is from Afghanistan. She says repeatedly how much she loves Texas but how – at the same time – she misses the snowy mountains of Kabul, and her grandfather who stayed behind and her older brother who is married and has a big dog. Thalia listens, and holds Shookria’s hand.
Deborah Pardo-Kaplan is Thalia’s mom. She says, because of the girls, the grown-ups are friends too.
“So, now, I come like half an hour early before pick up and I sit outside and I speak with them as best we can – sometimes with charades – and sometimes the children will come out and help us translate with things we don’t understand,” Pardo-Kaplan says.
One thing that’s hard to understand is why refugees are leaving this community. Especially now, programs were put in place and relationships were solidified. Lindsey Dickson is with Caritas of Austin, a refugee resettlement agency. She says it’s the lack of affordable housing
“Austin is really, really feeling that pain, probably more than even communities like Dallas or Houston or San Antonio –and there aren’t – within the city limits – as many affordable neighborhoods like Dallas or Houston might have,” Dickson says.
Jobs are another challenge. Because of language and re-certification barriers even the highly educated refugees struggle to find living-wage jobs, making it impossible for them to stay within the city core.
About half of all refugee students at Doss have already left.
And Pardo-Kaplan fears Thalia and Shookria could soon be separated.
“The love that we have for these families – you know? I’m sad to see the numbers dwindling. I don’t want them to dwindle,” she says.
And so a travel ban may not be the only thing that stops the flow of refugees coming into Austin. It may simply be the city’s steep cost of living.