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As Refugee Youth Adapt to US, High School Program Amplifies their Leadership Skills

Harrisonburg High School students in the Peer Leaders program pose for a group photo in 2019.
In April 2019, Harrisonburg High School's Peer Leaders club gathers with a group of students from JMU after a group dinner, celebrating their various cultures in traditional clothing. The connections between the Peer Leaders and JMU is intended to model what university life is like, and to encourage the high schoolers to imagine themselves attending higher education. (Photo: Maria Rose)  

This story was reported by Maria Rose, a producer for VPM's podcast Resettled, a six-episode series that shares the stories of refugees resettling in Virginia and the milestone moments that shape their experience. Resettled launched July 3, listen wherever you get your podcasts.

On a sunny April day in 2019, Harrisonburg High School’s Peer Leaders club is going through a ropes course. Held on James Madison University’s campus, roughly 40 kids prepare for the day. 

Kajungu Mturi encourages students as they go through the challenges. 

“Are we together?” he shouts often, as a way of calling the groups’ attention and rallying them to get excited. 

Mturi is one of the mentors for Harrisonburg High School’s Peer Leaders club, an initiative designed for young refugees who have relocated to this city in the Shenandoah Valley. Together, they learn about US culture and process what it means to be resettled. And today is all about team building. This first activity is called Sharks in the Water. 

“You do not want to get bit by the sharks in the water,” jokes one of the counselors, as the kids listen to instructions. 

The goal is to jump from island to island — really, rubber mats — across a mulch pit. If they fall or misstep on their way to the other side, the island is taken away. It requires teamwork and, mostly, patience. 

But for this specific group, the activity is almost too reminiscent of the passage from country to country, with all the many potential risks. The sharks they’ve faced are more realistic challenges  — visceral ones like family separation, crossing the Mediterranean in unstable boats, escaping life-threatening situations. And there are the less dramatic, but far more common and complicated challenges like paperwork, deadlines, and passports that slow down the refugee application process.

After several attempts during the ropes course that end in falls, someone steps in with an idea that, essentially, requires the students to work as a human bridge. When everyone finally gets to the other side, cheers erupt. 

“You’re a genius, bro,” a classmate congratulates the student who came up with the idea. 

Selam Mesfin, a senior, is a computer science nerd and refugee from Eritrea. He’s usually shy, but today, he wants to go first on the ropes course zipline. Group activities like this build up their self-confidence and communication skills. And Selam is channeling his inner leader. 

“I want to go first,” Selam said. “I don’t know why. I want to show them, first, everything. I’m excited. I’m not afraid of falling — I want to show them I grew up like this, climbing trees.”

A portrait of Selam Mesfin, who graduated from HHS in June 2019 and was in the Peer Leaders program.
Selam Mesfin, who graduated from HHS in June 2019, loves computer science. He began school at Blue Ridge Community College in the fall of 2019, on a full scholarship ride. He hopes to pursue cyber security as a career. (Photo: Leslie Bretz/VPM)

Harrisonburg City Public Schools hosts one of the largest English Language learner (ELL) populations, proportionally, in the state. A third of the entire student body are active English language learners. The number of ELLs is often seen as an indicator of diversity. But two-thirds are what the school refers to as culturally diverse, meaning that they are either active or former English language learners, have current or former immigration status, or speak another language, besides English, at home. Advocates point out that this is a more accurate measure of diversity. The school system has learned how to support this population, often by helping students adapt culturally so the classroom setting is not an overwhelming shock. This pace enables students to learn more efficiently.

“The school system here has worked hard to make a space for them, in transition from the education they had to American education,” Mturi said. “If you could take the same kids to normal class, trust me, that class would not be a class anymore. But that transition to make sure they are ready to go to the normal class is a blessing.” 

Peer Leaders was started about five years ago, but there were more systematic changes that happened when the ELL population hit a tipping point in 2004. At that time, 38% of Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ student body were English language learners. In addition to developing intensive classroom programming, the school system created a Newcomer class to help migrant kids adjust to US culture; a Home School Liaison program with 15 people providing language services in Spanish, Arabic, Kurdish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Swahili; and a Welcome Center to support newly arrived families. 

It’s these developments, Mturi said, that lead to better success for the kids. Families are brought into the fold. And that allows students to have a supportive learning environment in and out of school. 

“You cannot separate parents from the education. It's impossible. Because if you put parents aside in the education system, you are missing something very important in the development of these kids,” Mturi said. “If the parents will see themselves as part of the school, it makes it [easier] to work as a team to help students, rather than school against parents.”

With so many different populations brought together in the schools, Peer Leaders is a space where children from other countries can celebrate and maintain their own culture. It’s this balance of new setting and learned traditions that truly help refugee and migrant students carve their own space here in Virginia.

“If you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you are going. and that means, if you don't know your background, then one day you will not know who you are,” Mturi said. “What we are trying to encourage them to do is to make sure they are maintaining their culture, to make sure they speak their mother language, to make sure they maintain practice as much as possible.”

For Selam, finding this balance has been important. He’s away from his parents right now, living with extended family, so building relationships in school has been helpful. He’s the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college — not uncommon for the ELL population in Harrisonburg. 

This spring, he finished his first year at Blue Ridge Community College, studying computer science on a full ride. Just like at the ropes course, where he was the first to go down the zipline, moving forward required intimidating steps. But with the support of the Peer Leaders, he stood at the ledge, looked out at the wide open space, and jumped.