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Academy Prepares Young Refugees for Life in America

FILE - A Syrian refugee girl writes "we miss Syria too much" on the chalkboard in her classroom in Majdel Anjar in Bekaa Valley December 27, 2012.

As the conversation over Syrian refugees and security gains strength across the United States, one program in New York City has led the way in providing a safe zone for vulnerable youths from the world's most volatile regions.

For six weeks every summer, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) helps young refugees adapt to a new life in New York and prepare for a public school education before the start of the academic year. Many of the students, ranging in age from 5 to 19, have little or no command of the English language. Some were educated in refugee camps or other unstable settings. All were displaced by war, violence or persecution.

As the United States slowly opens its doors to vetted Syrian families, the IRC says its program — with a capacity of 130 students — is prepared to help them succeed, not only in adapting to the language and customs of the United States, but in fostering a welcoming environment.

Sara Rowbottom, the IRC education and learning manager who heads the Academy, believes that Syrian youths entering the program will be as successful as other students.

"There are commonalities in the types of challenges that they have faced in coming to the United States," Rowbottom said. "Many of their families were separated for five years, ten years, and they go through this process of having to get to know each other again, and to re-establish the roles of the family. There are many challenges that are happening inside and outside of school that these students are going to share."

Premature adulthood

The program, now in its 16th year, was born at a time when refugees were fleeing the former Yugoslavia. Although the geopolitics has shifted, the demand for fostering a safe space remains high, especially among high school students. Rowbottom says the program gives preference to newly arrived refugees, based on their educational history and parental ability to navigate the system and support the student at home.

A newly released documentary about the academy highlights some of the children's struggles upon entering the U.S. Tek Nath, a refugee from Nepal, recalls shouldering the financial responsibilities of his family, since he was the only English-speaking member. His father, who spent decades in a refugee camp, struggled to sustain regular work.

Tek Nath and his father, refugees from Nepal.
Tek Nath and his father, refugees from Nepal.

Another graduate from the academy and current student of political science at Brooklyn College, George Tarr, escaped war-torn Liberia with his grandmother when he was two years old. He said that moving to the United States gave him "something to live for," despite the discrimination he faced as a young refugee in Staten Island, New York.

Tarr credits the IRC with helping him to deal with his frustration as a teenager, in addition to reading and a foster upbringing by his grandmother. He continues to help other at-risk youths today, and urges others to do the same.

Tarr says he understands the public's safety concerns with regard to new refugees, but thinks it's important to maintain perspective.

"Everybody's safety comes first," Tarr said. "Everybody's lives matter. But you can't throw somebody into the bush because of other people's actions."