Refugee Youth Programs Nurture Strengths

Organizations strategize to help kids ‘dream again’

“We could do a flea market,” suggests Faisal Gedi, a tall high school senior of Somali descent. Three teenagers and an adult advisor cluster around a table in the community center in Clarkston, Ga., a small town on the edge of Atlanta. They’re brainstorming.

“What about a walk-a-thon?” asks Kim An Ta, a 12th-grader whose parents came from Vietnam.

It’s a meeting of the Clarkston Youth Initiative, one of a number of youth program in this small city, whose population is more than half made up of refugees.

Clarkston has been called the “Ellis Island of the South,” as more than 2,500 people from around the world are resettled here each year through refugee agencies.

Refugee kids face the same issues as U.S.-born kids, but with an enormous twist: the task of assimilating into a new culture after the disruption of fleeing from their home country. Some have lost family members or have been separated from them. They may be dealing with trauma and survivor guilt. Some have had interrupted schooling. Many must learn English, and they all must make their way through an unfamiliar education system.

Two years ago, the Clarkston Community Center, a 20-year-old nonprofit that provides art, education, recreation and community building, including youth programs, organized a meeting that drew roughly 50 teenagers, most of them students at the nearby Clarkston High School.

They split into small groups to talk about issues that were important to them, including what was going right in the community and in their lives, and what was going wrong.

Safety is an issue

Out of this facilitated discussion came one overriding concern: violence.

The teens were concerned about the police and the possibility of racial profiling, about being bullied, and general violence in the area. They wanted to feel safe.

The next step was to figure out ways they could address these problems.

Since then, Clarkston Youth Initiative members have met with the police and hosted speakers, including an official from the U.S. Department of Justice. They’ve done volunteer work together on Martin Luther King Day and undertaken a project to paint lockers at Clarkston High School. They’ve also done SAT preparation and have gone on field trips.

“They support each other and encourage each other, and work to make the community a better place,” said McKenzie Wren, executive director of the Clarkston Community Center.

The program follows a model known as Assets Based Community Development. “It helps people tap into their strengths,” Wren explained. The idea is to look for the gifts and talents that people bring, rather than being problem-oriented.

“It’s up to us [adults] to ask them what they need,” Wren said.

At the outset, it might seem obvious to program organizers that refugee kids need books and English language instruction. A teenager, however, might say he needs some brand-name shoes and needs to be able to run track. It’s important to respect that, Wren said. Helping them identify their needs helps them feel empowered and able to move forward positively, developing their own interests and identity.

Varied programs

The number of refugees admitted to the United States has ranged from 40,000 to 76,000 each year, with children making up about 35 to 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of State. Different types of programs for refugee kids exist around the country. For example, the New York nonprofit South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) also has a community-development focus. Its Arise project encourages young people ages 13 through 19 to learn about neighborhood issues and seek solutions.


Bridging Refugee Children and Youth Services seeks to strengthen the capacity of organizations that serve refugees. It shares information and promotes collaboration in order to ensure the successful development of refugee children, youth and their families. A sampling of groups involving refugee youth:

  • Bridge-2-Success (a Refugee Transitions program):
  • Clarkston Community Center:
  • International Community School:
  • Refugee Family Services:
  • ReWA:
  • Soccer in the Streets:
  • South Asian Youth Action (SAYA):

Programs can be as varied as the organizations that offer them: resettlement agencies and other nonprofits, cities, counties, local schools and ethnic community- based organizations.

Sometimes, a specific activity is the focus, such as Soccer in the Streets, which uses soccer with kids as a means of encouraging positive development.

In addition, in Clarkston, Ga., some informal after-school programs are set up in apartment complexes by residents.

Bridging Refugee Children and Youth Services, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, documents programs nationwide that have “promising practices,” which include responding to needs identified by refugee youth, engaging the community leadership, supporting family relationships, hiring bilingual and bicultural staff, and using a Positive Youth Development and strengths-based approach. Best practices, according to BRCYS, also include using evidence-based interventions, integrating evaluation into the program and fostering partnerships with community organizations and service providers.

Programs like Refugee Family Services, also in Clarkston, Ga., offer a mix of oneon- one tutoring and after-school homework help and language training, serving 119 children last year. The organization’s liaison program links parents with the schools, advocating for them when needed and offering interpreters and problem solving assistance.

A Seattle nonprofit, ReWA, partners with the public school district to operate a learning center that provides academic assistance and numerous activities for refugee and immigrant youth in grades 6 through 12.

The International Community School in Decatur, Ga., is an award-winning K-5 charter school that serves refugees and locally-born children. Erick Muhumuza, the afterschool program director, was a teenager when he came to the United States in 2003 as a refugee from Rwanda. Muhumuza sees communication as one of the most important issues for school and after-school programs to address. The International Community School staff is intentionally multi-ethnic, with the goal of communicating in each child’s native language. The school, which offers the International Baccalaureate, insists that students have the right to music, art, language and physical education, offering all of those things to the 278 after-school participants as well. Activities include the performing arts and dance, photography and gardening, as well as soccer, tennis and track. The school is adamant about educating the whole child and celebrating cultural differences. It sees its multicultural mix of refugees, immigrants and longtime residents as a strength in the goal to nurture and challenge children, and to create a loving and cohesive community.

What is helpful

Kids often learn English faster than their parents and become translators and intermediaries for them, which can change family dynamics. “Many experience a loss of respect for their elders,” Wren said.

Promising Practices

Since 2003, a Washington based nonprofit has been identifying groups that work effectively — although not exclusively — with refugee youth. The nonprofit, Bridging Refugee Children and Youth Services, has developed a list of “promising practices” for programs that serve refugee kids. They include:

  • Responding to needs identified by refugee youth
  • Engaging the community leadership
  • Supporting family relationships
  • Hiring bilingual and bicultural staff
  • Using a positive youth development and strengths-based approach
  • Using evidence-based interventions
  • Integrating evaluation into the program
  • Fostering partnerships with community organizations and service providers.

One task of refugee youth groups is to help kids continue to respect elders and their cultural traditions while learning the cultural norms of their schools and new homes. For example, the Bhutanese Artists of Georgia preserve some traditions of Bhutan through the arts. “They work hard to get kids respecting and proud of their music and dance traditions,” explained Wren.

Refugee youth could be called “thirdculture children.” As they assimilate into American culture, they mix it with pieces of their own tradition, which creates a third culture.

At this juncture, “it’s difficult to know who you are,” Wren said. The development of identity is complicated for refugee kids.

Mentoring programs can be helpful. Among them is San Francisco’s Bridge-2-Success, which mentors kids ages 7 to 17 and also offers home-based tutoring.

The difficulties of adjustment can result in some refugee kids getting lost. Some turn to gangs to find a place in the world.

“They’re just kids who needed that extra support and didn’t get it,” Wren said.

When they get help acclimating to U.S. culture, they gain the “tools and resources to dream again.”

Starting from scratch

Stephanie Place, a former nurse and current executive assistant at Clarkston City Hall, helped organize an after-school program for kids at the apartment complex where she lives.

“I desperately want to have something for them to do,” she said. “They get bored. They invent things to do. These are not good things.”

The 168-unit complex houses many refugee families. Place and other volunteers set up their program in an empty apartment. They met kids at the bus stop in the afternoon, gave them snacks and provided activities.

This year, however, the manager did not make an empty apartment available. Place is having a hard time finding a new site for the program.

“It almost makes you think people really don’t care about our children,” she said.

In the meantime, the teenagers of the Clarkston Youth Initiative have decided on their project. Gunawork Wondimneh, an 11th-grader whose family emigrated from Ethiopia, said they wanted a fun activity that could draw back some students who had left the group.

They’re holding the Clarkston Youth Festival on March 1 at the community center. Soccer is the Streets is invited to attend. Activities for all ages are planned. The teens will hand out flyers describing various community events and available services.

People who come to the United States as refugees “need to feel at home,” Faisal said. “It’s easier to bring people closer with fun things.”

“We’re all here to help each other,” he said.

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