At our kitchen table one evening, my 10-year-old daughter, Victoria, wanted to show me something as I checked her homework.
“Here’s how you write the words ‘I am’ in Arabic,” she said, slowly drawing a curved line with a little dot to the left. “Fatima showed me.”
“That’s so cool, Tori,” I replied.
Fatima Muhsen is a petite, dark-haired 10-year-old from Baghdad, and she’s my daughter’s best friend. Fatima and her family came to America from Iraq in 2009 when she was just 3. The pair met in fourth grade when Tori was a new student at their school. The two bonded over a mutual love of science and the band Twenty One Pilots.
As Tori began to write another Arabic word, I began to wonder what it must be like for a child coming to a new country — having to learn a new language and absorb an entirely new culture. I tried to imagine what school would be like for a little girl or boy who had been unable to attend one for years.
I was inspired by how quickly Tori and Fatima became fast friends — never questioning the religion of the other or where their families had come from. At a time when it seems Americans are more divided than ever over such issues as religious freedom and immigration, it was heartening to see that innocence and non-judgmental world view.
But making new friends is hard. For some children, the prospect of making friends with kids who don’t look like they do or who speak a different language can be daunting. Likewise, refugee children who have experienced a traumatic transition can be apprehensive about socializing.
How to help refugee families
With that in mind, I set out to learn how Tori and I could help kids in Arizona make children from Iraq, Syria and other war-torn places feel more welcome. A week later, I found myself at the Arizona branch of the International Rescue Committee.
The IRC is a worldwide relief alliance that helps rebuild the lives of refugees and those affected by humanitarian crises. With its partner organizations, the IRC provides assistance to immigrants and those still residing in unstable regions. About 23 million people benefited from IRC programs in 2015; its Arizona program opened in 1994.
Nicky Walker, IRC development manager, and Violetta Lopez, IRC education-program manager, gave me insight into the mind-set of new immigrants.
“It’s a mix of emotions, but overall I think there’s a sense of relief and also kind of shock,” says Walker, a native of Guatemala who aspired to work with the IRC after seeing her father’s work in humanitarian aid. “When you think about the types of populations that we’re resettling, you have people who have lived in really rural refugee-camp settings like Burma or Nepal where they may not have even had access to running water or a home with an actual door to shut and lock.
“But you take that and contrast it with some of our other populations from Iraq or Syria who are former doctors and engineers, and certainly their experiences are much different. The trauma comes from having lost all that and then coming here and having to start all over working at the airport (as a courier) or cleaning hotels — either way, there’s a tremendous emotional adjustment that they go through.”
That difficult transition reverberates in children as well.
“For the children,” Lopez says, “there’s always the initial excitement of going to school. Later on, some kids are able to go in and transition smoothly, but for others, they’ll have more issues in terms of bullying from peers or from the changes that they are experiencing in general from leaving everything behind.”
Empathy and advocacy
So how do we teach our kids to empathize with child immigrants and confront abusive behavior when they see it happening? It begins with instilling a sense of gratitude and insight, Lopez says.
“A lot of times, we assume the things we need are just there. We assume that people just have the things that they want,” she says. “So we want kids to ask themselves, ‘What are some of the reasons that (that child) doesn’t have what (he or she needs).’ Or ‘How would it feel if I didn’t even have one pair of shoes?’ Helping them to see that they are blessed makes them able to relate more, to be more giving, to be more appreciative.”
Teaching kids how to be advocates also is a big part of the solution. Bullying can be extremely difficult for any child. Students standing up to bullying in all its forms can make the biggest difference for those who may feel they have less of a voice.
“If they see something that is not right, if they see other children bullying or saying something mean or laughing at someone because they don’t understand English, they should always speak out against it,” Lopez says. “It doesn’t mean they should go and push the other child, it just means that they can go and be a friend to the one who is getting picked on. They can be a hero for refugee children by letting a teacher or grown-up know what’s going on.”
Sometimes, just showing children that they have somebody to lean on and trust is all that’s needed to make the child feel more confident. Tori had never told me about any instances of bullying, but I couldn’t help wondering whether she had ever spoken up for anyone who had been picked on.
“Fatima stood up for me,” Tori told me. Surprised, I asked how.
“I told this girl that it wasn’t her turn at the tether ball anymore, because she had lost on her turn, and then she called me a brat. Can you believe that?” Tori replied. “But Fatima told her to stop and that she wasn’t being nice. Then we just walked away.”
Mild shock to soaring pride coursed through me. I had incorrectly assumed Fatima would need a hand, but she was the one who stood up. Tori and Fatima were navigating the world with more grace than I could have imagined at age 10.
At that moment, I promised I would start volunteering and finding more ways to help all kids facing difficult transitions. A week later, as we shuffled through Tori’s old storybooks, deciding which ones she could donate to the IRC children’s playroom, she told me about her and Fatima’s college plans.
“We’re both going to ASU, so I can be a teacher and she can be a doctor, and we’re going to make sure that we live in the dorm together,” Tori declared. “So we’ll always be able to help people together.”
“And how do you want to help people?” I asked.
“Well, there’s a new kid in class who is from Syria who Fatima helps read because she understands his language, and I help him write,” she answered. “And if we can help him, I’m sure we can help all kinds of people when we’re grown-ups.”
“I’m sure you guys will, Tori,” I said. “No doubt about it.