Aimee Swartz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and The Scientist.
In Clarkston, a small suburb of Atlanta, refugee kids settle into their new home at the Fugees Academy.
Afghanistan, Burma, Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan. These are just a few of the war-ravaged countries the students at the Fugees Academy, the nation's only school dedicated to child refugee education, once called home. Today, the Fugees (short for refugees, like the band) are among the 16.7 million men, women, and children who have fled their home countries amid brutal civil wars, political upheaval, and unimaginable humanitarian crises.
By the time they are granted entry to the U.S., they have lost their belongings and their homes. Many have also lost parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors. One watched as his father was executed by the Taliban. Another, a former child solider, was ordered to kill his best friend.
"It is better here. You can have hope," says Tin Win, a 15-year-old student in the eighth grade at the academy, located in Clarkston, Georgia. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 2009 after fleeing their home in Burma.
In the 1990s, the State Department and various not-for-profit resettlement agencies chose Clarkston as an ideal site for refugees due to its affordable housing and public transportation to jobs in Atlanta, 11 miles to the southwest. Each year, as many as 2,000 refugees are resettled in Clarkston and surrounding DeKalb County. That number does not include refugees who move into Clarkston on their own from somewhere else.
"For the most part, everyone lives peacefully with their neighbors. They are happy to have a fresh start and doing their best to make it work here," says Ted Terry, the mayor of Clarkston.
The city, too, is doing what it can to make Clarkston a welcoming home. It offers free English classes at a local technical school. The police force has ramped up community outreach. By 2018, Clarkston will have completed a major streetscape project to revitalize the downtown and become more walkable for its carless residents.
After settling in Clarkston, most older refugee children enter Clarkston High School, the local public school. While some excel there, others fall through the cracks.
Prior to coming to the U.S., many struggled to survive in overcrowded refugee camps, where food and water supplies can be unpredictable and violence is common. In these makeshift communities, education is rarely a top priority.
"A lot of these kids arrive in the U.S. having had no formal education in their home countries, or having missed several years of school while they were in refugee camps. They are set up to fail from day one," says Luma Mufleh, who founded and heads up the Fugees Academy.
The problem, she says, is that refugee children are often placed in their new classrooms by age and not by ability. "You'll see a kid in high school who does not know how to read anywhere near that grade level, if at all," she says. The children may also feel ostracized by their American classmates, who do not understand the atrocities they have endured.
"In public school, I thought I was a failure," Win says. "I couldn't read or write. Other students looked at down at me."
With her own meager savings and some donations, Mufleh started the Fugees Academy in 2008 with the idea to educate refugee children in an environment that caters to their unique challenges, so they have a better chance of succeeding in their new country.
Run out of the United Methodist Church in Clarkston, the private institution has grown from a single-sex middle school of six children to a co-ed school serving 93 students in grades 6-11. Next year, funds permitting, it will enroll 120 students, and is on track to graduate its first high school senior class in 2016. With no funding from the city or state, each year Mufleh, the school's small staff, and volunteers must raise the school's operating budget.
"All of our kids, when they come into the school, are testing at the kindergarten or first-grade reading level. So that's where we start," Mufleh says. Sixth grade is the "catch-up year," where all subjects, even math and science, are taught in a manner that drives reading and writing abilities. From seventh grade on, students learn at a pace that is equal to or faster than a typical public school. Classes are single-gender, which the faculty has found to be most effective.
"It's total immersion—no language but English is allowed—so learning happens very quickly here," Mufleh says.
All students at the Fugees Academy participate in an after-school soccer program that gives them a sense of achievement they may not always feel in the classroom. Being part of a team also teaches them discipline and leadership, Mufleh says. "Soccer is a unifying theme in the school. Everybody knows it. Everybody understands it. Everybody loves it."
The Fugees Academy is an outgrowth of the soccer team that Mufleh—or Coach Luma, as the students call her—founded in 2004 after observing a group of boys playing soccer with a tattered ball in a vacant parking lot. The scene made her nostalgic for her childhood in Amman, Jordan.
"It looked and felt very much like a game of street soccer you'd see in a developing country—no rules, no regulations, just fun," she recalls. After learning the boys were refugees, she felt a kinship with them. "I, too, am an immigrant. I know what it's like to feel disconnected, to feel like an outsider."
Mufleh grew up in a well-to-do Jordanian family. After attending Smith College in Massachusetts, she decided to stay in the U.S., where she believed more opportunities for women existed than in her home country. As a result, her parents cut her off and left her to fend for herself.
Mufleh decided to start a soccer team for the kids. For those who made the cut, there were rules: getting good grades was top of the list. The soccer team became a place to practice English and, when practice was over, to get help with homework. "But it was just a Band Aid for bigger problems. It wasn't really helping them learn," says Mufleh, who won national recognition for the Fugees soccer program. She set up the nonprofit Fugees Family in 2006, and two years later, the academy.
Seven years on, the academy's track record is impressive. All students who have attended Fugees Academy for three years are reading at or above grade level. Twenty-three of the 29 alumni who aged out of the program are attending college, and another six are learning a trade through Job Corps.
After being at Fugees for the past year, Win says he has "big dreams," which include college and a career as an engineer. "I have seen what others can do," he says. "I see there are no limits for me."