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Clark Sykes: It feels great to help young refugees succeed

Take a moment to imagine you are a child arriving in the United States for the first time. You don’t understand the people around you, nor do they understand you. Housing and food are new and strange, and the local culture is bewildering. Your family may or may not be with you.

Now, imagine that you are placed in a grade level based entirely on your age rather than your ability. In class, you don’t understand what’s being said, much less the content of your courses. Yet, you’re expected to succeed.

This is exactly the situation countless refugee children face right here in Buffalo. The Buffalo Public Schools, where these children typically are placed, do their best to accommodate foreign students. However, many of these schools don’t have the resources to provide the individualized attention needed to overcome the incredibly steep learning curve. How, then, to close the gap?

Here is where after-school mentoring programs come in. ENERGY, where I am a volunteer, is an outreach literacy and mentoring program for refugee kids in grades one through six on Buffalo’s West Side.

An adjunct of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, ENERGY pairs children with trained volunteers in a one-on-one setting to offer academic guidance and encouragement. Meeting three days a week for two hours a day, we volunteers and our students work primarily on English reading and writing comprehension.

The hope is that by overcoming the language barrier, the children will be able to perform at grade level and hold their own with their American peers.

In addition to tutoring, each meeting includes a shared meal and some singing or game playing. It is in this fun, relaxed environment that volunteers and students get to know each other better, leading to better communication and more effective tutoring sessions.

Lately, I’ve been working with a 12-year-old boy who came to the United States from Burma two years ago. He is bright, enthusiastic and hardworking, but he speaks halting English, is reading at a first-grade level and is just learning to add. How, then, is he supposed to keep up with his sixth-grade classmates?

I see the discouragement on his face as we slog through simple language and reading exercises. But I also witness his excitement and growing confidence as he gradually makes progress.

Like all ENERGY students, he is committed to improvement. He willingly comes to our after-school program day after day, week after week, typically not getting home until 7 p.m. This is the kind of dedication that, combined with the right resources, produces results.

In these days of political polarization, economic uncertainty and conflict, mistrust of immigrants is, unfortunately, part of our reality. But I know another reality: one in which decent people flee unspeakable persecution in pursuit of a better life for their children.

I know the reality of children who want to learn so that they can be like everyone else in their grade and make their families proud. And, like my fellow volunteers and ENERGY staff, I am honored to welcome them to our community and to help them gain both the ability and confidence they need to succeed.