Six brave refugee students speak out to get the education they deserve

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

The students at the center of the federal lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster spoke little or no English when they arrived as refugees to Lancaster, Pa. They were nonetheless routed into an “accelerated” alternative school with an English language program that the students said was nearly useless, and pushed toward graduation. Not only is the alternative school, Phoenix Academy, designed to push a diploma before an education; it is also a disciplinary institution where students aren’t even allowed to bring books to school.

Here are a few of the student refugees who were courageous enough to speak out.

Khadidja Issa, 18, was born in Sudan and lived there with her family through the the Second Sudanese Civil War — a 22-year armed conflict plagued by famine and disease that resulted in more than 2 million people being killed. That war was supposed to be over in 2005, but the horrors of war in Sudan persist. Her family fled and landed in Chad, where they stayed in a refugee camp for six years. They emigrated to Lancaster, Pa. in 2015. Khadidja had hopes of learning English and getting an education here. Instead, she found herself at Phoenix Academy. “[At] Phoenix Academy the classes go very fast and I do not understand anything and I’m not benefiting,” she said through an interpreter, “so I want a school that is slower in pace so I can understand.”

Also 17, Qasin Hassan is from Somalia. His family fled their home country after their apartment was bombed and his father was killed by militants with the Al-Shabaab jihadist group. For five years, they lived in Egypt before moving to Lancaster in late 2015. When asked how he felt upon learning he was going to America, he said it was the happiest day in his life: “America number one.” In court, he talked about being denied admittance into school because of his age, his inability to speak English, and the lack of documentation about his limited schooling — all matters he had no control over. Once he was finally admitted to Phoenix, he told the court, he arrived in an environment where he understood nothing being said in English, and was never given access to an interpreter or anyone who might be able to help him grasp what he was hearing, let alone excel in school. He was also bullied and teased, he said, which his teachers ignored. When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he said he’d hoped to be a police officer, but that seemed impossible now. At best, he’d be able to receive public schooling until he turns 21, but at Phoenix, he’s learning little, achieving less. “I believe if I stay in Phoenix probably it will take me 10 years to graduate,” he said through an interpreter.

Van Ni Iang and her older sister Sui Hnem — 17 and 19 years old — fled Burma’s ongoing civil wars with their family in 2014. Van Ni told the court through an interpreter that her parents feared they’d be subjected to forced labor through the Burmese army. They landed in Lancaster at the end of 2015. Like Khadidja and Qasin, they, too, hoped to find a new life in the United States, to learn English, and to get an education here that they’d been unable to receive in their home country. They came forward in court with stories similar to those of Khadidja and Qasin: of an educational experience that was more like a detention center than a school. Sui Hnem became so dejected, she said, that she started to feel like she wanted to abandon her education. “I wanted to give up,” she told the court. The girls are forced to walk 45 minutes to attend Phoenix every day — the bus comes only if they are more than two miles away. In contrast, the Lancaster district’s main high school, the J.P. McCaskey Campus — the school to which they are geographically assigned — is only about a 15-minute walk from home.

Congolese brothers Anyemu and Alembe Dunia fled war in Tanzania. Through an interpreter, Alembe, 20, told the court Wednesday that their father was “running for his life” there, so they went to Mozambique, where they settled in a refugee camp. They finally arrived in Lancaster toward the end of 2014. Alembe had simple goals when he arrived — to get an education and learn English. But he was told that he was too old, even though he was 19 when he arrived in the United States, and entitled to attend public school through the year he turned 21. The enrollment denial left him with few options. “I was willing to go anywhere I can [to] learn English,” he said. “I couldn’t afford to pay for school, because I don’t have anything, any money to pay for [it].” Alembe’s younger brother, Anyemu, 18, was allowed to attend school, but he was thrust into Phoenix. Like the other students, he felt as though he was in a detention center, unable to bring anything to school or take anything home. He was never provided an interpreter to help him understand what he was being taught. He was never made aware of any after school activities he might’ve taken part in. He would have loved to play soccer, but Phoenix has no sports or after-school programs. Anyemu wasn’t even aware where he stood, academically, in comparison to other students. “[T]he classes were mixed and people from tenth grade, ninth grade, eighth grade…. So I didn’t know what grade I was in,” he told the court through an interpreter. Phoenix held a graduation ceremony for Anyemu Tuesday night, the first day of the trial. Anyemu completed all four years of high school in 16 months; senior year took only eight days.

The plight of refugees tends to get limited attention only when their experiences achieve a kind of virality — as the heartbreaking case of Omran Daqneesh has done in recent days. But it’s important to remember that people with similarly heartbreaking backgrounds are here among us. And that there are ways we can help them — especially when they’re brave enough to testify in court and describe what they need in order to be productive citizens. That’s precisely what Khadidja, Qasin, Van Ni, Sui Hnem, Anyemu, and Alembe have done.

“I want to make sure changes happen so people who would come after me, refugees come after me they can be in better shape than me,” Anyem said in court. “And I don’t want the school to focus on helping us to get the degrees, but they need to help us learning instead of going fast and to graduate to get the diploma and then they cannot do nothing with the diploma.”

“These kids are heroes on so many levels,” said Vic Walczak, ACLU-PA’s legal director, and a lawyer representing the students in their lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster. “They have endured war, suffered through the deaths of their parents, a bombed home, and refugee camps. They seek only a better life, which they recognize requires a quality education.

“And they have brought this lawsuit to help not just themselves but other immigrant students in Lancaster to get real schooling,” he said.

> Day 1: In day one of Lancaster immigrant testimony, a broken school emerges

>Day 2: Lancaster refugee lawsuit: A whistleblower speaks out

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