- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Four children sat cross-legged as their teacher flipped through a numbers book. When the page turned, they raced to yell the next number first - “six,” ”seven” and then, “nine!”

So they hadn’t yet mastered digits.

But for them, it was a task more stressful than it would have been for most other 5-year-olds in Louisville.

The children - from Somalia, Burma and Iraq - had only been in the United States for weeks or days. They’re refugees, forced to leave their homes because of war or persecution.

Now they were experiencing their first summer camp.

As part of a five-week Kentucky Refugee Ministries program, more than 40 children, ranging from kindergartners to seventh-graders, are taking morning classes in science, math, art and English. They’ll also partake in field trips, an art show and other activities planned by the resettlement agency, which has run the camp for at least a decade.

For the students, the program provides an opportunity to learn English, socialize in the language and experience American classrooms, where they are expected to participate and ask questions.

For parents, who worry about the language barrier their child will face in school, it’ll ease their kids’ transition this fall.

Challenges there, then here

Refugee children - who numbered roughly 600 last year in Louisville - often struggle to integrate into their schools, said Meagan Floyd, youth services coordinator for the agency.

Many suffer from post-traumatic stress, such as anxiety and learning difficulties, she said. And because their schooling abroad faced frequent disruption, they also begin below grade level, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

Once in the United States, refugee children face a new set of challenges. Along with the language barrier, they’re bullied by kids who don’t understand their accents or dress, such as hijabs, Floyd said. And because their parents may not have a car, kids can’t join clubs or sports teams to make friends.

“Just imagine if you’re in middle school and someone gives you a backpack and uniforms,” Floyd said. “And then tomorrow morning you have to get on a bus and not be able to talk to anybody.”

Kham Mangar, a 17-year-old from Nepal, volunteers at the camp because he understands the hardships the children face, In 2008, when he was a 9-year-old refugee, Kham entered an American school for the first time. He said that his classmates wouldn’t talk to him because he looked different and that his teachers didn’t do much to help him adjust. Though he took ESL classes, Kham struggled for many years to bridge the gap.

“It was hard,” he said. “I didn’t know English. I was just a little boy still learning Nepali.”

Starting now

Now, Iraqi brothers Karrar and Sajjad Abdulridha are trying to make that same adjustment. At the camp, the boys said they enjoy English lessons most and their parents also instruct them to practice at home, even though they’re in the midst of summer break.

“It was hard before, but now it’s getting easier,” Karar said through a translator.

Such attitudes have helped make the camp successful, Floyd said. She meets with parents beforehand to outline expectations, and almost all kids arrive prepared to practice.

Last year, every student improved on a diagnostic exam given before and after the program, she said. But the primary goal - to ensure that students feel safe in the classroom - is harder to quantify, she added.

For the refugee ministries, the camp costs roughly ten thousand dollars to run. JCPS provides three teachers and various community groups have donated funds, Floyd said. The camp is free for all participants.

During the first week, the children’s ease with each other was most apparent during daily play time. Girls jumped rope and boys scrimmaged against each other in soccer. Other children grabbed bubble wands and waved them through the air, creating a sea of spheres that drifted over the wall to fill the alleyway.

The friendships campers make should give them confidence when they’re surrounded by classmates this fall.

“I hope that our kids, when they go to school and see kids from here and anywhere else, will work to unify and be friends with the people who aren’t like them,” Floyd said.

___

Information from: The Courier-Journal, https://www.courier-journal.com

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