Refugees coming to the United States as adolescents often face a tricky scenario. Educational opportunities in refugee camps and other temporary shelter situations lag far behind what students in the U.S. experience.
As a result, young refugees may be several grade levels behind their peers, and with most school systems requiring graduation by age 21, pressure and frustration often compound the challenges facing new arrivals.
In Buffalo, New York, Episcopal Migration Ministries’ (EMM) affiliate partners at Journey’s End Refugee Services are working to support young refugees facing this scenario. With help from a $350,000 grant from the state of New York, the agency is rolling out a new “alternative to school” program this year tailored specifically for refugee youth caught in this “in-between” position.
Journey’s End Executive Director Molly Short said the program will take place in a traditional classroom, but will prepare participants for vocational opportunities or a General Education Development alternative to a traditional diploma.
“The kids want to feel the environment of the school, but it’s not always appropriate for an 18-year-old to go to school with 14-year-olds in the 9th grade, knowing they’re not going to finish in time,” Short said. “We see their frustration and we see the effect on the kid when they recognize they can’t succeed in the time allowed.”
Short said school districts frequently seek out advice from Journey’s End on how to serve 17- to 20-year-olds who arrive with dim prospects of catching up and graduating on time. Beginning this fall, the district can refer these students to the Journey’s End program, which will include intensive ESL, vocational and leadership training, health and safety education and preparation for the GED.
The program is a pilot, and Short expects that a successful outcome could lead to a different model across New York state.
“I think it gives kids a chance to succeed when before they weren’t receiving it," Short said. "They’re the ones having the hardest time adapting here as youth, and they’re the ones who are going to get caught in the middle without this type of program.”