UT Mentor Program Offers Young Refugees More Than Just A 'Hello' In A Familiar Language

Jun 14, 2017

It’s the final week of classes at Harris Elementary. UT graduate student Kim ​Canuette Grimaldi is meeting with her students one last time before summer vacation. Second- and third-graders Amira and Sajeda, both from Sudan, sit across from her at a small, half-moon-shaped table. While they’re working on multiplication, Amira starts sounding out the word on ​Canuette Grimaldi’s shirt.

A sticker there reads “mentor.”

Canuette Grimaldi volunteers with UT’s Refugee Student Mentor Program, a collaboration between the university's Department of Middle Eastern Studies and the Austin Independent School District. UT students who speak foreign languages – like Arabic, Farsi and Pashto – serve as mentors to refugee children a few hours a week.

Jonathan Kaplan, an assistant professor in the Middle Eastern Studies Department, started the program in the spring of 2015. Back then, he noticed more refugee students coming to his daughter’s elementary school.

“Doss [Elementary] ended up with an influx of 30, 40 refugee students who didn’t speak English at all, whose parents didn’t speak English at all,” he says. “[They] were in a very difficult place.”

This year, AISD has more than 1,000 refugee students across the district. Most of these families are coming from places like Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Somalia.

Because most of his students are studying languages from these regions, it suddenly clicked for Kaplan. He introduced the idea for the mentorship program to his colleagues, and they quickly jumped on board.

After some success at Doss, the program began spreading to other AISD schools. Now, the program has more than 50 mentors. Not all of them are proficient in Arabic or Pashto, since many are beginners themselves. But these volunteers are still valuable, says the program’s coordinator, Thomas Leddy-Cecere.

“Even if all you can do is say ‘good morning’ to a kid and ask how they are in a language that they understand," he says, "even if that’s it, and you have to stop after that, you’ve made a meaningful contribution to their day that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

"Even if all you can do is say 'good morning' to a kid and ask how they are in a language that they understand ... you've made a meaningful contribution to their day that they wouldn't otherwise have had."

But many volunteers in the program, like ​Canuette Grimaldi, are proficient in their language, She’s a fourth-year graduate student at UT, where she studies Arabic and Persian literature. She says she got involved with the program after a fellowship opportunity took her to Jordan. 

“I saw a lot of refugees in Jordan and didn’t feel like I was in a very good position to help,” she says. “So, when I got back I was very committed to making sure that I was in a position to do something.”

Canuette Grimaldi has been volunteering for about a year now. Her Arabic is advanced, so she has rotated throughout the district, going where she’s most needed. When asked about her experience with the newer immigrants – the ones whose language skills need the most help – ​Canuette Grimaldi gives an example of trying to explain the word "fossil."

Canuette Grimaldi asked her students in Arabic how they knew that dinosaurs existed. The kids first suggested that there were corpses. ​Canuette Grimaldi then asked if a corpse would last for 65 million years, and the students said no. When asked what would be left, the kids said bones.

They continued this exchange in Arabic as a group until the kids are confident in the English meaning. ​Canuette Grimaldi called this a negotiation of linguistic boundaries: They may not know all the words in English and she may not know every word in Arabic, but they’re able to figure it out together.

According to Maria Arabbo, AISD’s family support specialist, interactions like these are vital, since many of these kids have made it here through unthinkable circumstances.

“Iraqi refugees, Syrian refugees [have] had a vast amount of traumatic experiences, for sure, and also access to education is really varied in a war zone, and so many of them have come with interrupted education," she says. "So for students to not be able to understand anything – step in the UT students.”

Back at Harris Elementary, Canuette Grimaldi is wrapping up with Amira and Sajeda. It’s time to go back to class, and the girls are heartbroken to see ​Canuette Grimaldi leave. They do their best to make the walk back to class take as long as possible.

But their mentor will be back at the start of the school year, and the kids here will be eagerly waiting.