Imagine witnessing the torture and killing of a parent or close relative, then having to flee your homeland, move to a foreign country and go to school to try to make something of yourself.
Many Karen students at the Crawford High Educational Complex have to do just that. These students and their families escaped a brutal military regime in Burma, a Southeast Asian country also known as Myanmar. They are an ethnic group that makes up a small percentage of the country. As recently as 2010, news organizations like the BBC reported that the Burmese military engaged in ethnic cleansing.
After having survived these traumatic experiences, studying for algebra might seem, well, insignificant.
The School Attendance Momentum Team sponsored by The Mid-City Community Advocacy Network (Mid-City CAN) is helping about 10 Karen students adjust and complete their high school education. They are among 100 Karen students at Crawford.
Carolyn Smyth, the team’s co-chair and youth department program manager at the International Rescue Committee, and representatives from several other groups have led the effort. The other groups include the Karen Organization of San Diego, SAY San Diego’s Dad’s Club, The Union of Pan Asian Communities, and Building Healthy Communities’ AmeriCorps members. The groups’ focus on truancy at Crawford started in October.
For Karen teenagers, school can be daunting.
“At the New Arrival Center (at Crawford), we get kids who are at zero,” said Gwen Osgard, an English-as-a-second-language teacher. “They don’t have any English, but maybe they haven’t even been to school.”
She often witnesses a frustrating pattern where students leave the New Arrival Center and struggle in regular classes. “They begin to feel very unsuccessful very quickly,” she said.
That is what she believes happened to the group of Karen boys who hasn’t been coming to school.
“The first week of school, [one of them] came to me and said, ‘I feel really sad. I just want to sleep all the time,’ ” Osgard said. “He didn’t have the word for depressed, but the first week of school he was depressed because he felt like such a failure.”
As with many high school students, the idea of working hard for four years to graduate and eventually land a job can be a tough sell, Smyth said. Sometimes the temptation to do something illegal and earn a quick buck is difficult to resist.
“They are hungry now,” she said. “They need money, now, to feed their families.”
Not having parents to model how getting a degree pays off in the end is also a challenge.
“Their parents come from preliterate society,” Smyth said. “Their English skills are progressing even slower than their kids’ are.”
Earlier in the year, fighting on campus was a problem. Other students singled out the Karen boys for fights. Those boys “just feel unsafe and out of place in so many ways,” Osgard said.
Despite these challenges, the School Attendance Momentum Team reports that two of the Karen boys with truancy issues have started attending school again and they are about to have their first graduation. Eh Eh Wha will be the first Karen student to get her diploma from Crawford later this year.
[Disclosure: Adam Ward works for Mid-City CAN, the lead organization in the California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities initiative in City Heights. The California Endowment also funds Speak City Heights, which operates as an independent, nonpartisan news collaborative.]