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Resettlement Agencies Struggle with Education Needs of Refugee Children

As the Biden Administration tries to figure out how many refugees it will allow in the U.S. over the next five months, agencies across Ohio are preparing to meet the tight deadlines to help refugees adapt to life in America. Resettlement agencies support refugees in the first 90-days after their arrival with services such as registering for Social Security, finding jobs, and enrolling children in school. For WKSU’s Learning Curve, we report on how all of that got more complicated during the pandemic and during all four years of the Trump administration.

As the education coordinator at US Together, a resettlement agency in Columbus, Amanda Pritt looks at the future of refugee resettlement under the Biden administration with a mix of optimism and apprehension. Agencies like hers are rebuilding after the disruption of the Trump years at the same time one of their most important partners -- schools -- have been upended by the pandemic.

“It is mandated that a student be enrolled in public education within 30 days of arrival.”

However, the 30-day deadline is often hard to meet because of complications with other processes, such as longer wait times for the health screenings refugees must go through.

Most of the students enroll in traditional public schools. In rare cases, parents can opt for charter schools instead.

Kevin Walter serves as the Advocacy & Community Outreach Coordinator for the International Institute of Akron.

“Our education team, as well as our resettlement case managers, work with the public schools to ensure the kids are enrolled in time in the appropriate grade level.”

But until six weeks ago, many of those schools were virtual-only, making everything from evaluation to placement more difficult. That makes the partnerships organizations such as US Together and the International Institute have built with the local school districts crucial, not only for the children but for entire families.

Corine Dehabey, the director of programs at US Together in Toledo, says the agency works with all public schools in the area to serve immigrant children.

“We’re providing interpreters because we have an interpreting program. So we provide interpreters to schools that request them not just for our kids but for any other immigrant children who are enrolled.”

The resettlement agencies assist the refugee families in filling out online forms, gathering documentation, and setting up appointments. Additionally, some agencies ensure schools offer interpretation services as well as bus routes for the students who qualify.

While government funding only covers the initial enrollment process, resettlement agencies often seek grants or the assistance of other non-governmental organizations to provide additional services such as parent education. Amanda Pritt says such programs …

“Focus on making sure parents are taking an active role in their child’s education. They can’t do that if they don’t know the education system.”

The governmental funding was limited under the Trump administration as the number of refugees allowed in the country was cut to the smallest in decades. That decimated the infrastructure that built up over those decades in communities like Akron, which thousands of Bhutanese and Nepali people now call home. The Biden administration had promised to increase the numbers but delayed finalizing them last week. The International Institute’s Kevin Walter sees higher caps as goals that won’t be achieved for another two years.

“Throughout the Trump years, there were a lot of layoffs, a lot of downsizing. So as far as just the infrastructure of resettlement, it's going to take a little bit of time to build back up to have the capacity to handle the kind of numbers that President Biden has proposed.”

Beyond language and funding barriers, some older refugee and asylum-seeking children face an additional hurdle: education interrupted -- or never even begun -- during the years they were fleeing persecution or in camps. US Together’s Amanda Pritt says that despite the partnerships between schools and resettlement agencies, few focus on helping children older than 13 catch up on years of no education.

“I have yet to see a school that is honestly equipped to handle a 16-year-old student that is completely illiterate. It’s a curve that breaks the system.”

The refugee resettlement programs are hoping that the pandemic and federal policies over the last four years have not broken the system on a larger scale, and that key partners such as schools are able to recover and move forward as well.

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