When she first arrived in New York City from the West African nation of Guinea three years ago, 18-year-old Binta Diallo says that she and her siblings had difficulty even setting foot outside their apartment.
“We don’t know where were going … Everybody feel very sad. Like, knowing they left everybody in their country and then came here,” she said. Because she didn’t speak English, Diallo worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with other students when she began attending school that fall.
That’s a problem that the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, a six-week program for children of families who have been granted asylum in the U.S., aims to fix. The program — also known by its acronym, RYSA — is dedicated to acclimating these children to New York life and getting them ready to enter the public school system. Students in RYSA get to experience a typical American school day, taking classes in English, math and social studies, as well as dance, music, art, storytelling and filmmaking.
RYSA’s director, Kira O’Brien, says that putting children from different backgrounds together helps alleviate the feeling of isolation that many of them feel coming to a new country.
“It provides them with a community of like-minded students, right? That they are not alone in this,” she says. “In their classrooms they might not have another student that speaks their home language or knows what, kind of, food they eat at lunch or knows what a hijab is. It’s when you build a community of students who are like, ‘Hey, I’ve done that, too.’ Or, ‘I felt that way at lunch time before,’ that you are really building strength within students. That they know that each other are out there.”
Diallo says that attending RYSA helped her make friends and gave her a better grasp of English. She recently graduated from high school and will be attending college this fall. This summer, she returned to RYSA as a peer counselor, assisting RYSA’s teachers with younger students.
Read the full transcript below.
IVETTE FELICIANO: This summer, 118 students, from ages 5 to 20, attended the “Refugee Youth Summer Academy,” known as “RYSA”, here in manhattan.
STUDENT 1: I like RYSA teachers!
STUDENT 2: You get to learn more about different things you don’t know.
STUDENT 3: I have many friends. We play together. I like here. It’s very good.
IVETTE FELICIANO: This year’s class hailed from 29 different countries — stretching across Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Africa, and Latin America.
All of them come from families who have been granted asylum or refugee status in the us, some of them fleeing civil war, gang violence, and natural disasters in their home countries.
The International Rescue Committee started RYSA 17 years ago to prepare these students for the New York City public school system.
During the six week program, they get a taste of American school life, taking not just English and math classes, but also dance, music, art, and physical education.
RYSA director Kira O’Brien says acclimating to a foreign school system is just one of many hurdles refugee children face.
KIRA O’BRIEN: Things like language, things as simple as which direction a light flip switch goes. These are things that we might always take for granted, but kids are learning about every single time that they step outside of their apartment, that they go onto a subway. They’re always learning something new.
IVETTE FELICIANO: 18-year-old Binta Diallo arrived from the West African nation of Guinea three years ago. At that time, even setting foot outside her family’s new apartment was difficult.
BINTA DIALLO: We don’t know where we’re going. Everybody feel very sad. Like, knowing they left everybody in their country and then came here.
IVETTE FELICIANO: She enrolled in RYSA a month after arriving and says the program helped her make the transition.
BINTA DIALLO: My first summer here was, kind of like little bit nervous. But when I get here, I see like, I see white, black, a lot of people. Nobody, like, feel left out. Here, like, we were like, as a family, everybody cares for each other.
IVETTE FELICIANO: O’Brien says RYSA provides refugee and asylee kids with an environment where they can bond with students from different backgrounds.
STUDENT 3: I have friends! She’s my friend! She’s my friend! I have many friends!
KIRA O’BRIEN: It provides them with a community of like-minded students, right. That they are not alone in this. In their classrooms they might not have another student that speaks their home language or knows what, kind of, food they eat at lunch or knows what a hijab is. It’s when you build a community of students who are like, “Hey, I’ve done that, too.” Or, “I felt that way at lunch time before,” that you are really building strength within students. That they know that each other are out there.
IVETTE FELICIANO: That community has been helping 16-year old Bikash Shrestha, who moved here from Nepal three months ago.
BIKASH SHRESTHA: They are so totally awesome. They were saying everything with me and I’m saying everything with them. How they came to, like, new york. Why they came. And how is their country? And we’re sharing about our cultures. Food. Traditions. Everything. It was nice to meet them. It was my pleasure to meet them.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Diallo participated in this summer’s program as a counselor assisting teachers with younger students. She says rysa helped bring her out of her shell.
IVETTE FELICIANO: How did your experience here help you transition to your normal school?
BINTA DIALLO: Here, like, be able to communicate with people. I just wanted, like, to be able to be used to communicate with other people. So I always choose, like, to sit with people. Some of them don’t even speak English. But we always feel like listen and laugh.
IVETTE FELICIANO: O’Brien says the small triumphs of making friends or asking questions are crucial part of student development.
KIRA O’BRIEN: We have had other students who have said their first words in English with us. They’re now writing, you know, full sentences. Kids who are coming in and asking questions, showing us that they are engaging. It might seem, like, miniscule that a kid raises their hand. But that kid could have been working up to that for the past three weeks. So we really want to celebrate that.
KIRA O’BRIEN: “You are never alone. We are with you and we believe in you.”
IVETTE FELICIANO: This month, RYSA held a graduation ceremony for its 2016 class. The New York City public school year begins next month.
KIRA O’BRIEN: I believe so strongly that our kids need this. And if we’re gonna have an education system that reflects our city and who we have here, we have to honor that.
BIKASH SHRESTHA: The RYSA is an– best part of my life. And I never gonna forget about this program. I think I’ll come next year too for here.