The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A military junta in Myanmar, civil war in Nepal, factional fighting in Somalia.
Bita Honarvar, firstname.lastname@example.org (From left) Dawt Lian Sang, 15, and Biak Lian Cung, also 15, walk through the Clarkston High School campus on their way to play soccer with friends. Cung is a Burmese refugee who moved to Clarkston about three years ago from Malaysia.
These places and their problems may seem far away, but the turmoil there and elsewhere around the globe has reached metro Atlanta schools. A growing number of refugees have come to Georgia in recent years, with most settling in and around DeKalb County. By law, they deserve an education.
Their relative numbers are small: about 3 percent of the DeKalb County School System’s student body, according to school and state records. But the growth in percentage terms is not: DeKalb counted 2,627 refugee students in June, an increase of about 150 percent from the 2006-07 school year.
The students, many reared in camps, often come with little or no schooling. Many speak no English. They pose a challenge for teachers such as Hien Tran.
On a recent afternoon, he was trying to explain algebra to 19 students from 10 countries on three continents. They were 15 to 20 years old and had failed the competency test given to Georgia eighth-graders two to seven years younger. They were preparing for a second try at the test through a summer program at DeKalb’s International Student Center.
“I would say 50 percent don’t know what is going on up here,” Tran said during a break, gesturing to the equations he had scrawled on the classroom’s computerized whiteboard. He expected one in 10 to pass the test when they retook it.
“I know that is a low number,” Tran said. “But it’s a major achievement bringing them up from the first-grade level to the eighth-grade level in a single year.”
DeKalb teaches English to the refugees — who count more than 70 native tongues, from Amharic to Uzbek — and offers them tutoring. The hardest cases — those 13 and older with six or fewer years of schooling — typically spend two years at the International Student Center’s isolated campus on North Druid Hills Road before moving into neighborhood schools. There were 250 such students this year.
Other school systems, such as those in Fulton and Gwinnett counties, also have refugees. They don’t count them like DeKalb, but federal data give a rough head count: from June 2010 through May, DeKalb got 465 refugees ages 5 to 18, said Michael Singleton, the state refugee coordinator for the Georgia Department of Human Services. Fulton got 182, compared with four in Gwinnett and none in Cobb.
“A refugee is eligible to receive any service that any Georgian would get,” Singleton said, including public schooling.
Each school system handles that responsibility in its own way.
In Fulton, the students enroll at their neighborhood schools, where specialists give them extra help. Gwinnett also has no systemwide education center like DeKalb’s.
Patty Heitmuller, the principal of Gwinnett’s Radloff Middle School in unincorporated Duluth, said she had a couple of refugees from Africa this year. One spoke a little French and could communicate through an interpreter. The other spoke only an obscure tribal language.
Teachers must get creative, drawing pictures or counting tiles and sticks to teach them concepts like math, Heitmuller said. She said refugees give something back: They broaden minds.
“I think it is humbling for the rest of our students to realize what a refugee student has been through,” Heitmuller said. “I mean, they may have seen genocide.”
Some bring scars. On a recent afternoon at DeKalb’s International Student Center, a boy from Eritrea had to be pulled from class. He calmed down after some reassuring words in the hallway from assistant principal Varavarnee Vaddhanayana.
He sometimes fidgets or throws pencils, she said later. She thinks he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Some of them adjust well,” Vaddhanayana said. “Some of them don’t adjust at all. So we work with them.”
DeKalb graduate Hassan Haji adjusted well. The native of Somalia lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to DeKalb in 2005. He knew enough English and had done enough class work to test out of the International Student Center. He still needed tutoring at DeKalb Open Campus High School, though.
He just graduated from the University of Georgia with a double major in biochemistry and microbiology. He hopes to attend medical school.
The support from DeKalb tutors was crucial, said Haji, 23, “because I didn’t know what to do when I came here. If they see a weakness, they just sit down with you and talk with you individually.”
Like most refugees in Georgia, Haji lived in Clarkston.
During the past federal fiscal year, about 3,200 refugees resettled in Georgia, said Singleton, the state official. As in preceding years, the vast majority, about 70 percent, wound up in DeKalb. Resettlement experts say most land in Clarkston, where mass transportation, inexpensive apartments, jobs and a concentration of global aid agencies have created a haven for foreign newcomers.
The signs of immigration are plentiful in the tiny city near the intersection of I-285 and the Stone Mountain Freeway.
The billboard in the front lawn of an elementary school advertises summer classes in English as a second language, and an aging strip mall down the street has been repurposed for global tastes. A grocer there sells meat prepared per Islamic law, a clothing store sign depicts women with their heads covered by scarves, and a forgotten yard sign at the edge of the parking lot announces a May festival for Eritrean Independence Day.
Zai Iang, a 15-year-old girl from Myanmar, lives in a nearby apartment complex. On a recent afternoon, she was toting a manilla folder that contained a book and a reading log for a summer school class. Zai came to America from a refugee camp in Malaysia in 2009, and she just finished her last year at Freedom Middle School. She said she appreciated the extra tutoring there.
“We don’t understand first time,” she said. “Second time they teach us more, so we understand.”
She said refugees stick together and American kids are uninterested in them. The international students use their broken English to communicate, since it’s usually the only shared language. “Other people, they don’t want to friend us,” she said, “so we friend each other.”
Teachers somehow cut through the language problems.
“Our goal is to graduate them,” said Sandra Nunez, who runs DeKalb’s English Language Learner’s program. “To do that, we have to provide very focused and intensive service.”
The DeKalb refugee program is folded into the overall effort to educate the system’s 9,500 immigrants and other students who do not speak English fluently. About 250 teachers, administrators and support staff are involved.
The federal government helps cover the cost, giving DeKalb about $3 million this school year, according to state officials.
That means teachers such as Tran can focus on students like the boy in the red shirt in Room 213.
The teenager was using a pencil and ruler to plot the answer to a slope problem. The boy, a refugee from Myanmar, had continued working when other students disappeared during a break.
After the break, Tran approached his desk, and the boy put his pencil down.
“What is X equal to?” Tran asked.
“Two,” the boy said.
“Very good. What about Y?”
“Zero,” the boy responded.
“Yes, very good.”
Tran moved to the next desk, and the teen picked up his pencil and ruler, and quietly continued his work.