“I Have a Story to Tell.”
On this early spring Friday afternoon, there is an abundance of laughter, jokes, and small talk in the room on Elm Street where the members of IRIS’s Youth Leadership Program have gathered. The students – most of them juniors and seniors in high school – compliment one another’s shoes or reminisce about an old teacher – sometimes switching between English and Kinyarwanda, Arabic, Pashto, or French. Snacks are passed around; students tell each other how their week went. To a casual observer, the room seems devoid of the pressures and hardships that constitute the background noise of most students of their age – college applications that need to be filled out, summer job searches that lay in wait, social situations that require delicate navigation – challenges that are all the more formidable for recently-arrived refugees.
Stick around long enough, however, and you get a sense of some of these hardships – one student wants help with her college application essay, which bears all the hallmarks of displacement: a compelling, emotional narrative beset by limited English vocabulary and grammatical errors; another student wants to know how he can apply for a summer job that will help his large family pay the rent; a third student is seeking advice about an ongoing, culturally-grounded misunderstanding that has been causing tension between him and his fellow students.
At the Youth Leadership Group, the students can benefit from the advice of older mentors, such as the tireless Yale students who help to manage the program, or visitors from other local non-profits who field legal or financial questions – but mostly the group is about helping and teaching each other. Participants in the Youth Leadership Group teach one another about their cultural backgrounds and personal journeys by cooking and dancing together or sharing difficult stories; they share advice on everything from taking the PSAT to mastering the complexity of local public transportation. The Youth Leadership Program is a space where these young refugees – insofar as that label describes just a part of who they are – can leverage their many strengths to address their manifold challenges.
For the rest of this spring, the young women of the group will continue to marshal their experience, thoughtfulness, and collective tenacity as they prepare for a trip to Atlanta and Birmingham in July. To ready themselves for the intercultural exchanges that will take place during this trip, the young women will be studying the history of civil rights in America and their countries of origin, engaging in non-violence training, and exploring their own journeys through narrative. Thinking about the upcoming trip, one YLP participant said “I believe I have a story to tell, and meeting people coming from different backgrounds I will have a chance to share my story and learn about other people.”
To learn more about the civil rights trip and to donate to make the trip possible for 16 refugee young women this summer, click HERE.
This post was written by By Dennis Wilson, Coordinator of IRIS-CT’s After-School and In-School Tutoring Programs at IRIS-Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services.