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Siblings of Liz Peter. Photo by Chantal Anderson.

Siblings of Liz Peter. Photo by Chantal Anderson.


Children Of Refugees

Staff Reporter

When a refugee family comes to Washington state, it is often easier for the children to pick up the new language and adapt to the cultural changes. But for their parents, this shift can be a lot harder. Once a refugee family has been here for a while, the children often become the ambassadors to the outside world. It's the kids who have to translate for their parents and deal with all the bureaucracy of life, from hospitals to schools to immigration offices.

For the final segment in our series about refugees in Puget Sound, reporter Jessica Partnow looks into what the refugee experience is like for the children.


Birch Creek is a huge public housing complex in East Hill, a couple miles from downtown Kent. Just over 1,000 people live here. The place was completely renovated in 2010, and the streets are Disneyland clean. The townhouses all have pretty little patios and yards.

More than half of the people who live here are immigrants and refugees from all over the world.

There's a community center where a Polynesian dance troupe practices every week. Seventy–four percent of the kids here live in homes where English is a second language.

At 3:30 on school days, kids pour into the gym and the computer lab for a few quick games before being shuffled upstairs for homework help.

Roslyn Kagy: "We, on any given day, we have students from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran, Iraq — "

Roslyn Kagy runs a tutoring program at Birch Creek.

Kagy: " — Turkey, Moldova, Russia, the Ukraine, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam."

Most of Roslyn's students are refugees or recent immigrants.

Kagy: "I remember a couple weeks ago, we stopped and counted. We were going around the table, talking about how to say hello in our language. And we realized there was 11 different languages being spoken at one tutoring table!"

A lot of Roslyn's job is helping kids and parents navigate new systems. For some families, the schools here are just a little different from the ones back home. It's like moving to a new state.

For others, coming from conflict zones or some refugee camps, just having school every day is new.

Kagy: "So a lot of times the parents will come in and they don't know quite how to say it, but I can tell I'm like, 'All right, cool, their kid's here and they want them to study.' So I'll make that happen for them."

Liz Peter came to Birch Creek for tutoring when she was in high school. Now she's 19, just finishing her second year of college.

She lives an hour away, in Shoreline, but she tries to come back every Tuesday and Thursday to help out. She recently tutored a boy from Puerto Rico.

Peter: "He was asking me where I was from and I was like, 'I'm from Sudan.' He was like, 'Oh yeah, that's in Africa, that's by Kenya!' I was like, 'How do you know that? You're only like eight?'"

Liz was born in southern Sudan. Her family moved to a refugee camp in Kenya when she was a year old. They came to the US as refugees the next year, in 1993.

Today, a little knot of 10– and 12–year–old girls in headscarves is crowding around Liz as tutoring gets started.

Girl: "Ms. Roslyn! I really do have homework and I do need help!"

Peter: "You can come over here and I can help you."

Liz seems like a natural, joking around about math homework with a 5th grader from Somalia.

Peter: "I haven't done math by hand in such a long time."

Girl: "OK, then what's six times five?"

Liz: "Six times five is 30."

Liz uses her iPhone to double–check the math.

Peter: "So, 38 times 45 — how would you start doing that?"

Girl: "Wait, wait, wait for it!"

Liz is fun to be around. She's happy and energetic. She's proud of her life. Watching her tutor, it's hard to believe that she almost didn't finish high school.

Peter: "I was just tired of school: same thing, every day. And I felt like I wasn't that great at school, like I passed with C's and D's, and I was just not motivated at the time."

Liz says her parents weren't really paying attention.

Peter: "Like, sometimes your parents don't have any educational background and so, like, they don't know how to help you. You can pass school with all D's and they wouldn't know it."

She says it felt like they just wanted her to finish high school because that's what you're supposed to do.

When they first came to the States, they went to Iowa. But they moved around for years, looking for work. Eventually, they decided to join one of Liz's uncles in Seattle. Liz didn't like it.

Peter: "I hated it. I hated being in Seattle! It's like, it rains all the time. And there wasn't any other kids around, it was like older people. We couldn't really go outside, and we walked to Safeway all the time for no reason."

For the first six months or so, they stayed in a one–bedroom apartment with Liz's uncle. And 30 other people.

This was early high school. Liz thinks it was that crowded apartment that finally pushed her to get serious about her education.

Peter: "And so I wanted to get out the house so I would always be at school, tutoring places, play sports. Do anything to just stay at school! So I got really good grades."

Today, Liz lives in Shoreline with her mom and seven younger brothers and sisters. They have a five–bedroom house. It's public housing, so rent is just $50 a month, but they're struggling. Her mom is looking for a job, but it's hard because she doesn't speak English.

Peter: "So basically my whole life I've watched my mom do, um, like labor jobs: housecleaning, housekeeping. Jobs like that."

They have a big family, and Liz thinks of her cousins almost like brothers and sisters.

Peter: "[Asks her mom a question in Nuer.]"

When Liz talks to her mom, she switches easily between English and Nuer. Nuer is the southern Sudanese language her family speaks.

Peter: "My mom's dad had three wives. So between her, [asks a question in Nuer]."

Mom: "[Responds in Nuer]."

Peter: "Ten? She had ten siblings, my dad had around ten, we — my mom — has eight children."

Liz's mom grew up in a rural village. She didn't go to school; she never worked outside of the home. Liz's life is completely different from what her mom's looked like at that age. For Liz's mom, this is a different world. Liz has to help her mom interpret a lot of everyday life.

Roslyn Kagy says she sees this a lot. She's worked with refugee kids for several years, and says there is just so much that new arrivals have to learn.

Kagy: "How do you find housing? What are all these crazy processed foods in a grocery store? You know, how does the school system work?"

Refugee kids navigating this new system straddle the world of school and the world of their parents.

Kagy: "A lot of our kids go to the school and they're all kind of the foreign refugee kids, and what's interesting is that most of them come from different countries, speak different languages, have a different culture, have a different language! Some of them were on opposite sides of a war, fighting for years, and now they come here and they're best friends, and they're hanging out at the youth center together."

Peter: "Chooter, come here!"

Today Liz is distracting her youngest sister while her mom loads the minivan with clothes for a trip to the laundromat.

Liz's dad left five or six years ago to go back to Sudan, and ever since then Liz has become almost like a parent to her younger siblings. She goes to their teacher conferences. Now that she's over 18, she doesn't even have to bring her mom.

Liz is determined to be the first in her family to graduate from college. Now, she just has to convince all seven of her younger brothers and sisters that they can do it too.

Peter: "Some of them are not looking so great right now. I keep pushing them. I have to bribe them, I have to go to parent–teacher conferences, just everything I can do to help them, but sometimes it's not enough."

During her freshman year at Seattle Pacific University, Liz had a couple of her brothers come stay with her on campus for a night to start to get the feel of college. She has two more years to go herself, but she's already thinking about the next step.

Liz has heard that if you speak English, it's easy to get a job in the newly–independent nation of South Sudan. She can't remember anything about life there, but she loves the idea of going back.

For KUOW, I'm Jessica Partnow.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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