When Oliver Kwete’s family fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, his mother told the then five-year-old boy and his six siblings that they were going on a holiday. Instead, they spent 13 years in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe, before they stepped off the plane in Arizona and into the care of the International Rescue Committee.
A year and a half later, Oliver is a junior at Central High School with a passion for rugby. He is working hard to earn a scholarship to college.
Video by Lauren Negrete/AZEdNews: Refugee students start new lives in AZ public schools
The number of refugees relocated in Phoenix through IRC was over 1,200 for fiscal year 2016 and around 650 in 2017, according to the International Rescue Committee’s Phoenix chapter. Since the inception of the program in 1978, over 60,000 refugees have made Arizona their new home.
Refugees like Oliver and his family are “persons who are outside of and unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of their home country because of persecution or fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
In the past two years, about half of the relocated refugees were children who were enrolled in school, said Dr. Violetta Lopez, manager of the education and learning program at International Rescue Committee in Phoenix. About four percent of university-aged refugees who arrived in Arizona had received higher education prior to resettling, according to the IRC.
At the refugee camps, Oliver said the locals and refugees experienced vastly different schooling. “It was so bad for a refugee kid to succeed,” he said. Refugee students were reprimanded more severely than locals, he said.
Older kids have a harder time adjusting than younger ones, because documentation errors and the challenges schools face to determine which grade level is appropriate, Lopez said
Although Kwete has already started university studies, he entered high school upon resettling in Phoenix. In addition to shoring up his academics, he hopes his high school experience will open doors to a college scholarship.
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Arizona Teacher of the Year Josh Meibos, who teaches physical education at David Crockett Elementary in the Balsz School District in Phoenix, said his school has a large population of refugee students, partly because of government-subsidized housing within their school boundaries.
He calls working with these students and developing an understanding of their cultures one of the highlights of teaching there. “I feel like it’s a responsibility for me to learn more about their background and set them up for success,” Meibos said.
A second career teacher, Meibos said his plan was to establish his career in Arizona and then teach internationally. To his surprise, he didn’t need to travel to be enriched by Sudanese, Syrian, Somali and many other cultures all within Arizona.
“These are the most charismatic, talented students. They’re American boys and girls, and they’re just trying their best to navigate our culture. If I can be any instrument to help them be successful then I think that’s a success on both sides,” said Meibos. “The adverse childhood experiences that these kids bring are far beyond my understanding.”
Oliver said his school is very diverse, and more than over 75 languages are spoken there. Phoenix Union High School District has almost 150 refugees enrolled, with 70 at Central High School.
Oliver said he’s narrowed his college choice to three schools: Saint Mary’s College in California, Lindenwood University in Missouri and Grand Canyon University in Arizona. He hopes to earn a rugby scholarship and intends to study sports business management.
“I don’t feel like I’m a refugee in AZ, I just feel like I’m a normal citizen of Arizona, because I’m well welcomed in this school,” Oliver said.
Lopez is hopeful others will continue to have an open perspective “so we are more inclusive of all the students we serve.”