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Helping Young Refugees Craft New Beginnings

Helping Young Refugees Craft New Beginnings

Posted: August 3, 2015

On a recent morning inside a bustling classroom, Buffalo State student Dallas Taylor sits at a table surrounded by eager little faces peering up at him as he explains the months of the year and how they figure into the four seasons. His students, mostly elementary-school age, try writing the months in order and illustrating what to expect in those months—snow for January, bright sun for July.

“April is when we get rain and get out our umbrellas,” he tells an uncertain little girl who smiles as the words seem to click for her—rain, umbrellas, raincoats—spring in Buffalo.

The children who are enrolled in the Buffalo Beginnings program have recently arrived as refugees from countries such as Nepal, Burma, Uganda, and Somalia. To them, Taylor’s lesson is as much about adjusting to life in the United States as it is about learning English.

“Many of the kids have never seen snow or experienced cold weather,” said Maureen McCarthy, program director for Buffalo’s State Community Academic Center (CAC).

Buffalo Beginnings, a course that meets in the morning for four weeks at the PS 45 International School, is a partnership program between the CAC and Journey’s End Refugee Services. Free to participants ages 4 to 15, the course teaches academic and practical skills including letters, numbers, telling time, the months, and seasons. There is another course for older students.

“The program’s goal is get kids acclimated to our city and get them ready for school,” said Buffalo Beginnings coordinator Marta Cieslak.

“What is really amazing is how quickly the kids are speaking English,” she said. “We see such great progress. Students who won’t do more than whisper their name the first week are participating in activities and repeating all the words by the fourth week.”

Since its inception in 2012, Buffalo Beginnings has served 190 refugee youth through the engagement of 18 Buffalo State volunteers and service-learners.

Taylor, a rising senior journalism major, is participating in Buffalo Beginnings as an Aaron Podolefsky AmeriCorps member.

“I thought this would be a good way to spend the summer,” said Taylor who grew in Buffalo and aspires to be a radio journalist. In the morning he teaches the Buffalo Beginnings class; in the afternoon, he works at the CAC preparing classroom lessons and also writing for the newly launched community newspaper, Karibu, which is geared toward immigrants and refugees. Taylor must complete 300 hours of community service before November; he will then receive a $1,000 education credit.

“I like to try new things,” he said. “And this experience with different languages and cultures will help when I’m starting my career.”

Cieslak has been impressed with Taylor’s performance.

“It’s hard to believe this is Dallas’s first teaching experience,” Cieslak said. “He was able to establish a relationship with the students early on. He is friendly but still an authority figure.”

She also praised the three other volunteers who participate in the program—a high school student, a SUNY Oswego student, and a professional teacher who recently moved to Buffalo. 

“The program is what it is thanks to the volunteers’ commitment,” Cieslak said.

Buffalo Beginnings is one of a handful of programs that provide an opportunity for Buffalo State students to help immigrants and refugees. Every year students from a range of majors work with the CAC by dedicating volunteer or service-learning hours.

The rewards are plentiful. Cieslak said the children come to class eager to learn, often arriving early. For many, this is their first experience with a formal classroom and they relish the lessons and interaction with other students. 

“In our experience newcomers are really focused,” McCarthy said. “The parents value educational opportunities for their kids while they are working on ESL and citizenship classes and getting jobs.”

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