Hafiz Hussein has been in Kentucky for two years. But for him and many others, coming to the United States was not by choice.
Originally from Sudan, Hussein was forced to flee his home country alone, at the age of 16 after his village was attacked due to the country’s ongoing civil war.
“My village was attacked very early in the morning in the year 2003, around 4 a.m., when people are sleeping. Killing people, beating them, raping women, so its like a very sad story. People had to run to escape the problem,” said Hussein, who saw his grandmother killed that day.
Hussein was on his way to attending college in Sudan. But after arriving in a Kenyan refugee camp, he realized that dream would be delayed. At the refugee camp, all courses were taught in English, which Hussein didn’t speak. So, he had to start back at the beginning to continue his education.
“I was put into it into a very big challenge was I to say I don’t want to go to school or just forget and continue [begin] again. So I decided, again. I enrolled in a primary school in Kenya, with the small kids, knowing that education is important,” said Hussein.
More than a decade later, after finishing school in Kenya, Hussein was given refugee status in the United States and moved to Kentucky. Once again, he had to adapt to a different educational system; this time, at Jefferson Community and Technical College.
Kentucky: A Home for Refugees?
Hussein isn’t alone in this experience: since 1994, more than 29,000 refugees have been resettled in Kentucky, according to Catholic Charities’ Kentucky Office for Refugees. But as refugees come into the state with little to no English skills and different educational backgrounds, they face challenges integrating themselves into Kentucky’s education system.
In Louisville, various resettlement agencies and community centers provide services to refugee families in order to help ease their transition. One of them is the Americana World Community Center, which offers after-school homework help and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.
Americana after-school teacher and program coordinator Jasmine Wigginton said the city’s educational system may not recognize individualized issues for refugee students.
“One thing that I have noticed with younger kids, is a lot of kids have oral skills and can speak English very well,” she said, even though their written skills may still be behind. “And those kids can slip through the cracks because it looks at it appears as if they know they understand what’s happening, but they really don’t.”
For older students, Wigginton said many have trouble meeting grade level standards.
“We have a young girl who’s 17, she’s originally from Somalia, but I think she came from Kenya and so like, she’s just kind of thrown into the school system,” Wigginton said. “And they do have ESL classes where she goes to school, but it’s also kind of like, ‘OK, you’re expected to kind of work at the same level as a high school student,’ whether you have those language skills or not.”
Hafiz Hussein, who is now a student at Jefferson Community and Technical College, said even though he learned English at the refugee camp in Kenya, he still occasionally struggles with reading comprehension.
“You may go to U of L and pass the exam and be in the class. But with somebody like me at the time, I can’t even understand a single word in that class,” said Hussein. “The teachers [at JCTC], they understand the background of refugees.”
JCTC offers a four semester sequence of ESL classes. At the beginning of their enrollment, students are tested and placed into an appropriate learning track for learning English.
While Hussein may have a better understanding of the English language due to studying it in Kenya, he said that understanding the cultural dynamics of a classroom can be confusing.
“I think it was last semester, I took a chemistry class, the teacher used to give examples using American stuff I don’t know about,” Hussein said. “And I have to ask my friend to let me know what he’s talking about because maybe it is something that I need to know, but I don’t know about it.”
Create An Adaptive School Curriculum For All
As classrooms look and become more diverse, Wigginton suggested that teaching plans incorporate more worldly perspectives.
“I think teachers are aware of the diversity in the classroom, but how do they approach the diversity in the classroom?” she asked.
Wigginton added that teachers need to be aware of their student’s individual abilities, too.
“You need to always know who your students are, get to know them on a personal level, know what they need. And if you don’t start with that, you can’t help anyone that comes,” Wigginton said.
Despite the educational system’s challenges that Hafiz has faced and will continue to face, he said he’s still determined to further his education.
“After graduating, maybe after getting my bachelor’s degree, I need to start work in the USA to gain experience in the field, and also continue to get a master’s degree. Then maybe by then I want to try to be a professor in the field, back home [in Sudan] or any country in Africa,” said Hussein.
But as the State advocates for diversity and continues to welcome it, the educational systems should reflect an adaptive approach.