Refugee Students Bond at Sonoran Science Academy

Ayanle Farah shares a special bond with many of his classmates at Sonoran Science Academy-Phoenix.

The bond extends beyond academics, sports and other regular school activities, and into the realm of language, beliefs and culture.

Farah, 16, is one of dozens of refugee students who attend the East Phoenix public charter school, where almost 20 countries are represented among the student population.

Farah is a Somali who came to the United States more than two years ago with his family, which includes a sister and two brothers, from Ethiopia. This is the ninth-grader’s first year at Sonoran Science Academy, a K-12 college preparatory school that focuses on Science Technology Engineering Math(STEM) education.

Like many refugee students, Farah didn’t know English when he first arrived in the country more than two years ago.

But, his first year at Sonoran Science Academy has made the adjustment easier because of the other Somali students, as well as refugee students from other countries who attend school, not to mention teachers and staff who work hard to accommodate the students, he said.

“Someone will ask for help in Somali if you don’t understand,” he said.

Sports also served as a gateway to a new culture, as he began to play organized soccer and basketball.

Ayan Ali, 14, a Somalian who was also born in Ethiopia, had a similar transition when she transferred to Sonoran Science Academy three years ago .

In Ali’s previous school, her classmates teased her because of her faith and background, she said.

“My parents picked this school because there are a lot of Somali kids. They have similar beliefs compared to other schools,” she said.

Although the school’s environment and diversity has helped ease the transition for many of its refugee students, teachers and administrators have had to make their own adjustments as they learn the best ways to communicate with the students and their families.

School staff has had to navigate the inevitable barriers that arise when the student population and their families speak numerous languages, especially when publicizing school events.

“There is a lot of miscommunication with the parents, not the students. The students know what’s going on completely,” said Principal Jim Satterlee. “We have to spend time with parents” to earn their trust.

The school sometimes brings translators to help close any communication gaps, Satterlee said.

The refugee students’ behavior on the playground and in the classroom can also differ from their peers, although it’s not usually disruptive, he said.

“They’re playing style is rougher. It’s just adjustments kids have to learn to make,” he said.

Overall, school staff has embraced the opportunity to help the students while learning some of their own lessons.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s rewarding,” he said.

To learn more about Sonoran Science Academy, click here.


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