x

A Sense of Belonging: Inside the Only U.S. School Dedicated to Teaching Refugee Girls

Jessica Lander on the Essential, Challenging Work of the Global Village Project

The streets of Clarkston, Georgia, were dark and almost entirely empty as we bounced along back roads in a small school bus early one morning. In the driver’s seat sat Crispin Ilombe Wilondja, the school support specialist for the Global Village Project (GVP), which is the only school in the United States dedicated to teaching refugee girls.

We pulled up alongside an apartment complex and out of the darkness two girls, one Syrian and one Congolese, emerged and quietly boarded. A third was missing. Crispin picked up his phone: “Salaam alaikum!” on the other end of the line, the girl’s father explained she is late, but he will drive her. We continued on. At the next stop, three girls bounded onto the bus. “You’re late, Mr. Crispin!” they accused in mock indignation. Crispin chuckled. “Good morning! I think I’m exactly one minute late.” The girls laughed as they took their seats.

For many of the students at GVP, Crispin is more than a bus driver, or a math teacher, one of his other roles at the school. He is like a family member. He knows the girls’ birthdays, their favorite school subjects, the songs they like to sing. He has sat in their living rooms, and their families’ numbers are logged in his phone.

For fifteen young women, a third of the GVP school, he was their case manager when they were resettled in the United states. As girls board the bus, he can tell me the exact date and time each landed in America. He knows because he was there to greet them at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

What does it mean to belong? For nearly 26 million refugees across the globe, roughly 50 million people internally displaced because of conflict, and millions more internally displaced because of natural disasters, exclusion is a daily, lived experience.

As they buckled up, Crispin took out his phone to call two Congolese sisters. “Hu Jambo!” His Swahili is warm and expressive. “Are you ready for school? Have you eaten enough ugali?” The sisters, Naomi and Casifa, had joined the school a month ago after arriving in the country two months earlier. When, in their first few days at GVP, they failed to meet the bus, Crispin went to their apartment to collect them. on the fourth morning, he suggested they set an alarm. Naomi didn’t know how, so he taught her. He promised, too, to call every morning.

Never before had either sister attended school—not here, not in a Uganda refugee camp, not in the Democratic republic of the Congo. But soon after the girls arrived in the United states, public school officials placed seventeen-year-old Naomi in eleventh grade. Understanding little and unable to communicate with either her peers or her teachers, she decided to drop out. Her mother needed help; her younger siblings needed food, clothing, and money for school supplies. she planned to get a job in the nearby chicken factories. That was when Crispin learned of the new family. He went to meet them, and soon after he introduced the two oldest sisters to GVP. Although dubious about American schools, Naomi decided to enroll.

Naomi and her sister were waiting for us when we pulled up to a row of brick apartments. two Burmese sisters and another Congolese student scampered on just behind them. As the sky ripened to peach, we headed back across town lines to Decatur, a wealthier suburb of Atlanta.

Two of the girls were blasting Bollywood on their headphones, singing along in Hindi. “see, Mr. Crispin, we are learning a new language!” Crispin laughed, a rumbling chuckle. When we reached school, the girls piled out singing. The side of the bus was painted in bold purple letters: “The Global Village Project: One Girl at a Time.”

*

The Global Village Project, located on the second floor of a church on the outskirts of Atlanta, teaches roughly forty young women, all born into conflict. They come from Cameroon, Colombia, and Chad, from Syria, Burma, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have spent years living in refugee camps in Uganda, Malaysia, Tanzania. collectively they have lived in more than seventeen countries and speak at least as many languages, from Turkish to Tigrinya to Thai. The girls range in age from eleven to eighteen and on average have missed three years of formal education. some, like Naomi, have never attended school in their life.

Their story is shared by roughly 130 million girls worldwide who, according to UNESCO, are not able to study—a class size so large that it equals roughly the entire population of Mexico. Of those, approximately one in nine will likely never enter a classroom. The reasons are varied. The journey to school is unsafe. school uniforms and supplies are too expensive. some girls remain home because they lack feminine hygiene products; others must care for younger siblings or work.

In some communities their brothers’ education takes priority or parents expect daughters to marry young. When families are displaced, the challenges for girls are compounded. Classrooms in refugee camps are invariably overcrowded, up to one hundred children to a class. school days are truncated, sometimes just two hours long. School resources are scarce and teachers are overworked and underpaid. Refugee girls attend primary school at lower rates than refugee boys. By the time they reach secondary school they are less likely to remain enrolled.

These global statistics were deeply personal for the Afghan families who began arriving in Clarkston, Georgia, in the early 2000s. For some of them, their daughters’ formal education had ended when the Taliban had forced schools for girls to shut. Those Afghan girls, many now teenagers, were enrolling in middle- and high school. But as many had been out of school for years, unsurprisingly, they understood little of what they were taught. Some began attending a local tutoring program. It was there that they met two professors retired from the University of Hawaii who themselves had recently come to the south.

Suzie and Ricky Jacobs, hoping to grow connections in their new community, had begun volunteering to help children with their homework after school. When they met the teenage Afghan girls they were dumbfounded. Where did one begin in attempting to reclaim years of lost learning? schools were ill equipped to meet their varied needs. The pressure to work or to marry weighed heavily. How, the couple wondered, could they help prevent the girls from dropping out? As Suzie, now in her eighties with sparkling blue eyes, remembered, “We thought, if only for those girls, could we do something?”

Suzie and Ricky began meeting with other wealthy, retired professionals in the community. Within months they had opened a free two-hour weekend program for high school refugee and immigrant students. They planned to offer academic tutoring. on the program’s first Saturday, dozens of residents arrived—not just teenage girls, but also their grandmothers and their baby brothers, their fathers and mothers, their aunts, cousins, and friends. some sought tutoring, others came with questions about job applications, or with the hope of practicing english.

The seed of an idea grew in the hours of the Saturday tutoring program—an experiment that could form a bridge between global conflict and American high schools. Suzie, Ricky, and a handful of other volunteers began writing grants and raising money. In downtown Decatur, a church offered up its second-floor classrooms. In the fall of 2009 GVP opened, a private middle school with thirty girls drawn from across the world. By then a few of the Afghan girls had, with support, successfully graduated high school or aged out of the system. But Suzie and the others knew that there were many more who shared their story.

Sun was one of those young women. Before being resettled in Clarkston at the age of twelve, Sun, a Burmese of the persecuted Karen people, had lived all her life in a Thai refugee camp. on arrival in America, Sun spoke no english and had only ever attended the camp’s small, ill-staffed schools. she was assigned to fifth grade and hated it. “No one wanted to be my friend or even sit on the bus with me.” In class she comprehended little. she had been in the country a little over a year when a woman approached her family. A new school had recently opened, one for girls like her. Hesitantly, Sun enrolled.

In the small classrooms above the church she was shocked by what she found. Her new classmates might come from all around the world, might be all different ages, might speak an array of languages, but their stories were surprisingly similar. And at GVP, everyone was curious about her and about her heritage. Her teachers showed up at the local Karen new year celebration; in the classroom girls swapped food from home.

Feeling accepted, Sun finally had space to study. She graduated from GVP and enrolled in high school. In 2016, as a high school senior, she received a thick packet in the mail. In it, she found a remarkable letter. The young Karen woman had been selected as one of just one thousand high school students nationwide to receive a Millennium Gates scholarship. The scholarship would fully fund her undergraduate education, as well as graduate studies after college. As Sun told me in 2019, she dreamed of one day becoming a teacher.

*

In a classroom, the principal of GVP, Dr. Amy Pelissero, held aloft a potted fern in front of a group of mesmerized young women. Her actions had been spurred by a question asked by a girl wearing a black hijab: “What does it mean to be ‘uprooted’?”

We were in the midst of a reading class. Seven girls had books spread across two tables. Behind black-rimmed glasses, Amy considered her students. Together they sat about dissecting the word. A Congolese girl supplied a definition of roots. “They keep trees standing straight and give them food and water.” An Afghan student in a teal headscarf exuberantly spotted the connection between flora and fauna. “If you are from the United States, you belong in this country. rooted means you belong!” A Pakistani student almost leapt from her seat. “So, uprooted means you move from a country!”

That was when Amy spotted the fern and took it down from the windowsill. “Is it easy,” she asked, “to uproot and replant this fern?” “no!” the girls chorused. nodding, Amy took hold of the thin stems and yanks. The girls gasped. exposed roots dangle, shedding dirt. “You are right, uprooting is more than just moving from one place to another. It can be hard. When you find a new place you also have to find soft ground to grow new roots.” The Pakistani girl’s eyes lit up. “Like us! It’s like how we move from one place to another and find a better place to live.” Amy smiled. “Yes, sometimes you might find a better place, or even just a different place. But you too might have to have some soft ground to grow in.” Around the classroom, everyone nodded.

it is not enough that schools deliver academic content. For a refugee child, Dr. Dryden-Peterson explains, “If they don’t have the sense of ‘I am comfortable here, I can imagine myself here, I feel safe here,’ then very little learning can happen.”

What does it mean to belong? For nearly 26 million refugees across the globe, roughly 50 million people internally displaced because of conflict, and millions more internally displaced because of natural disasters, exclusion is a daily, lived experience. As Harvard Graduate school of education Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson describes, for refugees, “the foundation of many conflicts is built on a lack of belonging.”

Dr. Dryden-Peterson has devoted her career to working with refugees and those who support displaced people around the world. She is particularly concerned about the future of young people caught up in an eddy of conflicts, epidemics, and natural disasters. How do the world’s 13 million refugee children imagine a future when there is a very real worry that tomorrow they will no longer be welcome?49 As Dr. Dryden-Peterson puts it, “Your sense of belonging is always tattered at the edges, because you don’t know when someone else is going to make a decision that means you can’t stay.”

The vast majority of the globe’s displaced children will grow up with this uncertainty. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), each year less than one percent of the world’s refugees are granted permanent residence in another country—providing them the chance to feel they belong to both a community and a country once more.50 schools, Dr. Dryden-Peterson believes, have an essential role to play in welcoming and grounding displaced students. But it is not enough that schools deliver academic content. For a refugee child, Dr. Dryden-Peterson explains, “If they don’t have the sense of ‘I am comfortable here, I can imagine myself here, I feel safe here,’ then very little learning can happen.”

At GVP, Amy knows her most important goal is to ensure her students understand they belong. Amy has been at the school since close to its founding, first as a teacher and then as its head. For nearly a decade she has been grappling with how her school can best support students like Sun and Naomi. For children who have long been denied access to school, where does one begin? Academically a girl might enter GVP clutching a first-grade education. But for years she might have been forced to assume the role and responsibilities of adults—working, negotiating government systems, surviving. curriculums must honor both realities.

The task for Amy and her teachers is herculean: in two to three years, to have the girls master as much as possible of an accelerated pre-K–eight-grade curriculum so they can have a fighting chance at high school. While officially a middle school, GVP has no grade levels. Where to place a fifteen-year-old Burmese student? Age would put her in tenth grade, academic tests might suggest second grade. The disparities can be confusing, or embarrassing. Instead, GVP has three levels that loosely correlate with a collection of grades. Flexibility is essential. Instruction, by necessity, must be tailored, allowing each girl the best chance at jump-starting her education.

Growing up as a Somali refugee in Djibouti, Nasteho recalls her father telling her from the time she was little, “I never want you to depend on a man. I want you to be educated.” But for a displaced person in a sprawling refugee camp, schooling was scarce. In 2014, when her family secured resettlement in Georgia, Nasteho was fourteen yet had managed to cobble together only a handful of school semesters. Based on her age, she was placed in sixth grade. Her new school was huge. she was ignored by teachers, bullied by students. A month after arriving, she heard of a special school designed for refugee girls. Nasteho, who favors black hijabs, grins in remembering her arrival at GVP. The small school felt like home. every one of the many adults knew her by name; they also knew her parents, her sister, her cousins. school was a family affair.

Volunteers conceived of GVP and to this day volunteers remain the backbone of the program. More than a hundred mostly older white women and men commit an hour, sometimes more each week. Mindful of the potential pitfalls in pairing well-meaning white volunteers with largely nonwhite students, Amy and the GVP staff hold mandatory evening trainings for volunteers to examine and discuss power and privilege. It is essential, challenging, and ongoing work that Amy thinks about often.

During the school day, volunteers sit one on one with students, providing the individual attention most teachers can only dream of. together they read books, review math problems, discuss historical movements. one afternoon an older British woman sat side by side with a seventeen-year-old Eritrean student. together they contemplated a story of giraffe conservation. The girl, her finger following the text, began to read, word by slow word.

For a refugee child seeking to belong, learning the language of their new country is one of their first hurdles. It is a messy, painstaking process. Mistakes are a must, but few teenagers will willingly make mistakes in the presence of peers. I vividly remember my own high school Spanish class. My rehearsed words always tangled in my mouth, my cheeks flamed, my heart raced. I hated the class for how it made me feel. My newcomer students can relate. GVP’s volunteers provide an elegant solution. Women, many the age of grandmothers, are far less intimating than teenagers. The volunteers give the girls a chance to sound out imperfect sentences and struggle through conversations with native speakers without the pressure of trying to impress. This is how Nasteho, years ago, learned to read, with one of GVP’s founders sitting next to her.

Nasteho was in her second year at GVP in 2015 when Crispin, then still a refugee resettlement case manager, first learned of the school. Crispin’s calling defies definitions. He has been a secondary school principal, a university professor, and a pastor in his home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He has worked as a hospital chaplain in Nigeria and Benin. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy, theology, and biology. He wrote his master’s thesis on HIV/AIDs prevention while studying in California.

But Crispin never intended to make the United states his home. His work and life was in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, and it was there that he began speaking out in sermons and on the streets in defense of the poor and against a corrupt Congolese government. For his activism he was arrested repeatedly. When Crispin heard whispers that he was to be assassinated, he fled into the jungle. There he hid for a year until friends smuggled him out to the United states in 2011. Degrees and professional experience notwithstanding, when Crispin was first granted political asylum, the only place that would hire him was Goodwill. He cleaned floors for $7.25 an hour. It would take four years before Lutheran services hired him as a case manager to help refugees restart their lives.

One afternoon in 2016 he was asked to bring a newly arrived girl to tour an unusual school. The girl, like Naomi, had never attended formal school, could not even scratch out the letters of her name. Crispin, who accompanied her on the tour of GVP, was mesmerized.

From that day on, every time he believed a girl on his caseload might be eligible, he brought her family to tour the school. If he heard of other girls in the Clarkston refugee community, he invited them too. When, a year later, the school had an opening for a bus driver, Crispin did not hesitate to apply. For him GVP worked miracles. “I see a girl who does not know how to write her name and then three years later she is reading and speaking confidently.” He sighed deeply in satisfaction. every adult in the school—teachers, volunteers, support staff—holds a common belief: that these young women belong in school; that they belong here. It is a belief they are not shy about reminding their students. “education is the best gift we can offer these girls,” Crispin told me.

A pastor at heart, he often speaks in sermons. “I tell them the future of your family depends on you. Your parents are struggling. They hold night jobs and have low wages. You have these opportunities. You have to break the cycle of poverty. My dream is to see you one day become doctors and lawyers. And you can do it. You will do it. That is what I tell them.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education by Jessica Lander. Copyright 2022. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander is a teacher, journalist, and author who writes about how state and national policies and cultural climate affects immigrant education. Her work on education and education policy has appeared in numerous publications including the Boston Globe, Harvard Ed Magazine, Educational Leadership Magazine, and Huffington Post. She has previously authored Driving Backwards and coauthored Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success. Making Americans is her latest book.





More Story
Either/Or... Neither? Looking Beyond the False Binaries of the Catastrophist Present It’s been an either/or kind of week on Keen On. Either Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo. Either a digital or analog future....