Samuel Kanwea showed up for what should have been his freshman year in high school illiterate, malnourished and exhausted from years of living in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. His family had never been able to afford the luxury of education, so he spent his early teenage years collecting firewood and selling fish.
When the Liberian refugee started school in Oakland at the age of 17, it was the first time he had set foot in a classroom.
“Everyone was speaking English and it confused me,” said Kanwea, a lanky student with a wide smile. “And I felt scared because I think that I was the only one who didn’t know how to read.”
New immigrants and refugees have long posed challenges for educators in the United States, but Kanwea and others like him present unique problems because they are often strangers to traditional schools. Academic issues are only one facet of their adjustment. Not only must educators teach them English and move them toward graduation, but they also must counsel many students grappling with the trauma of wars, persecution or poverty.
“Their needs are emotional, political, economic and social,” said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, assistant professor of education at UC Berkeley. “When we say that we are the land of opportunity and we welcome all people . . . these kinds of students and their families really put us to the test.”
While most school districts in California place newcomers directly into traditional campuses or short-term English-language programs, Oakland Unified School District offers them an alternative campus -- and the option to stay there until graduation. The Oakland International High School opened in 2007 to educate the city’s recent refugees and immigrants, and now enrolls about 220 students from around the world, including from Yemen, Mongolia, Russia, Ghana and Honduras.
This month, Kanwea, now 20, entered his final year at the school with the routine of a typical student: attending classes, playing basketball and doing homework. He has also gained weight, frequently going back for second helpings of the free lunch.
Kanwea tells people his birthday is Jan. 1, a date assigned by the United Nations refugee agency, because he doesn’t know the day he was born. He grew up in Liberia without electricity or running water and subsisted on the food his family grew: tomatoes, rice, peppers and cucumbers. The family fled the war-torn country in 1992 and, after many years in Ivory Coast, came to the United States as refugees.
The hardest part of adjusting to life here, he said, has been learning to read and write. Four years ago, he didn’t know the alphabet. Now, Kanwea said, he can read “little kid books” and “some chapter books.”
The accomplishments of this once illiterate student can be measured through the sentences he can now write. In history class, the teacher instructed the students to write in their journals about the places they’ve traveled to in the United States. Kanwea wrote, “There place that I been in called Sacramento. In Sacramento is very nice place. It is quiet and nice.”
On a recent day, art teacher Thi Bui instructed her students to write a poem about themselves and then read them aloud in groups.
Florinda Pablo Mendoza, 17, twirled her hair, chewed gum and fiddled with her purple hoop earrings as the teacher spoke.
Bui said, “If you don’t understand, ask your neighbor.”
When Bui stopped talking, Florinda turned to a classmate and whispered in Spanish, “What did she say?”
In one sense, Florinda -- who attended only two years of school in Guatemala before arriving in the United States in spring -- has an impressive gift. She speaks both Spanish and Mam, a Mayan dialect. But, like many new immigrants, she doesn’t speak any English. Everything else in school -- geography, algebra, U.S. history -- will be out of reach until she learns the language. Classmates become both friends and translators.
Mendoza’s friend, a 15-year-old Mexican immigrant, helped her spell out the words for the poem: Florinda. Happy, young, quiet, short. . . . Who lives to play music, dance. Who wants to see family, friends and sisters. Resident of Guatemala.
Florinda looked at the letters she had written. She couldn’t read them.
“It’s difficult for me,” she said in Spanish. “I don’t understand.”
Principal Carmelita Reyes said intensive reading classes and after-school tutoring help, but there is still a lot of ground to cover. “If you are not literate in your native language, it’s really hard to flourish,” she said.
Despite that, Reyes said, students like Florinda make remarkable progress in a short time, in part because they are immersed in English at the school.
In Guatemala, Florinda lived on a ranch, where she passed the time cooking, working in the fields and weaving with her grandmother. The nearest school was a two-hour walk away, a distance too far to go alone. She came to the United States legally this year to join her parents.
Florinda said she feels sad when teachers and classmates are speaking English and she doesn’t know what they are saying. But her friends, who have been there themselves, assure her she will start to understand more soon.
“I want to learn English,” she said in Spanish. “Because if I want to work, I need to speak English.”
Sticking it out
Hser Kaw, 15, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled Myanmar. He spent just a few years attending school in a bamboo building before coming to the United States as a refugee in 2007. Hser said he often skipped class at the camp.
When he first started at the Oakland school, Hser said, he felt intimidated because he couldn’t read, write or speak English. He spoke some Thai and a little-known language called Karen.
“It was really, really hard,” he said. “All the students were laughing at me. If a teacher told me to get something, I just stayed looking.”
In his first year, he received mostly Ds and Fs. He said he considered quitting, but knew that he would be able to find a better job if he graduated. So he sought out extra help and completed his missing work, and he’s now in 11th grade. Reyes said Hser is often the first student to arrive on campus in the morning.
For some immigrant and refugee teenagers, the tasks are too much and they drop out. But many students show an incredible drive to succeed, said Laura Vaudreuil, executive director of Refugee Transitions, an organization that provides tutoring and social services for the youths and their families.
“They need to work a lot harder to catch up,” she said. “They absolutely do this. . . . They know they are given an opportunity that we take for granted.”
Now, Hser can carry on conversations in English and understand most of what happens in class. After graduating, Hser said, he wants to go to college and get a job helping other refugees.
Because the school has been open only two years, it’s too early to assess graduation and dropout rates. Students must pass the state’s high school exit exam to graduate, but can stay until they turn 21.
“Little by little, I know more and I know more,” he said. “I understand and I make friends.”
During English class on a recent day, Kanwea and his classmates undertook a decidedly American lesson: They took turns reading aloud President Obama’s recent speech on education. When it was Kanwea’s turn, he read slowly and paused on a few unfamiliar words. His friends, from India and Nepal, helped him with the pronunciation.
Even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you, don’t ever give up on yourself. . . . The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.
Even though learning to read has been a tremendous struggle, Kanwea said getting discouraged hasn’t been an option. His mother, Jessie Kanwea, said she is relying on him and his sisters.
“If they don’t go to school and get good jobs,” she said, “how will they take care of me in my old age?”
So each day, Kanwea keeps taking the bus to school. And he keeps reading.