TWENTY-FOUR days after he arrived in the United States, Mamadou Fadja Diallo, 13, showed up for summer school in Manhattan looking wary and confused. The building itself was disorienting: big and imposing, with polished floors, nothing like his school back home in Guinea. He was surrounded by students from all over the world. He could not understand a word anyone was saying.
In June, he had left his home in the West African nation with his mother and 12 siblings. The family drove to the airport and flew to New York. None of the children had been on a plane before, and only one could speak any English. They were met by their father, Abdoulaye Diallo, a Muslim imam who had fled Guinea in 2007 and sought asylum in the United States after becoming entangled in his nation’s volatile and violent politics.
That first day of summer school, July 9, began early in the morning, with Mr. Diallo bustling Mamadou and 11 of his siblings, ages 5 to 22, out of their apartment in the Bronx and onto a subway train downtown to Murry Bergtraum High School by the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan.
It was a difficult morning. “I was confused because everybody else was understanding what was being said and I wasn’t understanding,” Mamadou recalled, his father translating.
The Diallos were far from alone in their bewilderment. Their classmates were other young immigrants who, to varying degrees, were feeling the same sense of dislocation.
The Refugee Youth Summer Academy, as the program is called, was created for recently arrived refugees and asylum recipients. The academy, started in 1999 by theInternational Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency based in New York City, tries to help its students find a footing in their new country and prepare them for school.
This year, more than 100 students enrolled in the six-week program, which offered an academic curriculum supplemented by creative-arts classes, field trips and other activities. They hailed from at least 13 countries, including Nepal, Burkina Faso, Iran, Iraq and Cameroon. Some had been in the country for a couple of years; others, like the Diallos, had just arrived. They spoke at least 17 native languages. Some could speak and read English fluently; others could not write their own name in any language. Some had attended school in their home countries; others had never been in a classroom.
If there was any commonality in their experience, it was that their families had been driven from their homelands and were seeking a better life in the United States.
The mixed-race father of two Russian boys was compelled to leave his country after suffering brutal racially motivated attacks.
A Bhutanese family, granted refugee status by the United States, left a Nepalese refugee camp that they had called home for 22 years.
The mother of an Afghan boy had suffered unspeakable treatment by his father and fled with her son to New York, where they live in a shelter for women and children.
THE Diallos arrived late on that first morning. The other students sat at long tables in the cafeteria, mostly silent, nervousness and fear on their faces. They made no eye contact with one another and answered questions from enthusiastic staff members with mumbles or gestures — if they answered at all. One small Tibetan child, a SpongeBob SquarePants knapsack strapped to his back and a fedora on his head, put his chin on the table and seemed to disappear under the hat’s brim.
The students were separated into six classes, grouped by age, school experience and English proficiency. Academic courses were held in the morning, with arts and recreation classes in the afternoon. The lead teachers came from the public school system, assisted by volunteer teachers and counselors, many of whom were college and graduate students in education, and some of whom were alumni of the academy.
(The New York Times, August 25, 2012)