Refugees find solace, help in Kent schools program

Just three months ago, Saw Kennedy was living in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Abrar Al Maghribi

Abrar Al Maghribi

Just three months ago, Saw Kennedy was living in a refugee camp in Thailand.

Having escaped ethnic persecution from the government and military in his homeland of Myanmar (though he still calls it Burma and says he always will) seven years ago, Kennedy and his family – including son Junior, 6, – were safe from the junta leadership, but still afraid of the Thai police and gangs, whom he said harassed and attacked him for being Burmese.

Finally, Kennedy was able to apply to the United Nations for refugee status and was re-settled to the United States. It was a path that brought Kennedy and his family to Seattle and then, ultimately, on to Kent.

Abrar Al Maghribi, 18, has a similar story about her family’s escape from Iraq. It was an arduous path that included living for 10 years as refugees in Jordan and, finally, settling in Kent in March.

But Kent is a long way from home and both families are not only from the other side of the world, but the other side of a cultural divide.

Even those things Americans consider “normal,” such as shopping, or getting fast food or even registering their children for school can be difficult concepts to grasp.

“We have to go to school and we don’t know how,” Al Maghribi said, speaking English that while not fluent, is very good and easily understandable.

Seeking to offset some of that difficulty, the Kent School District has created a new program to help prepare their children for school, as well as to assist refugee families in adapting to their new homes.

It’s the Refugee Transition Center, a place where those who have found their way to South King County seeking political asylum can find help getting their children into schools and learning basic life skills.

“That might sound easy, but it’s difficult even if you speak English,” said Israel Vela, director of student services for the Kent School District, and one of the leaders behind the Refugee Transition Center.

“You name it, we do it,” Vela said of the center.

Vela said the genesis for the center came following a meeting in the summer of 2006 with the state director of refugee settlement.

Vela said as a former principal he’d seen the difficulty refugee families have with the simple tasks.

“As a principal, I knew the difficulty in transitioning parents who came to my office,” he said. “I knew the need.”

In February of 2007, with help from a $71,000 refugee school impact grant, the center opened its doors. Originally open three nights per week, the center switched to five nights in June and is available to help refugees within minutes of their call.

This past summer, 115 families with approximately 175 new Kent students took advantage of the center’s services, learning how to read a bus schedule, taking practice trips to the grocery store and McDonald’s, and receiving some tutoring to prepare them for the upcoming school year.

According to Vela, the purpose of the center is to help transition new refugees into the district and into American life. All families are referred to the center by caseworkers.

Once there, the center workers – including Clair Chean and a team of volunteers – help get families access to services and supplies. They also help them register for school, or in the case of younger children, get them signed up for early childhood programs offered by the district.

The center also helps prepare students for entering an American classroom, and shares tips with families to help them make the transition safely and more smoothly. One example is teaching them not to light charcoal fires inside their homes. It might seem like second nature to someone from the U.S., but to families living in other parts of the world with wood-fired cooking equipment, it’s not so readily apparent.

For the refugees, the center is something of a lifesaver.

“They show us it’s not so hard; don’t be confused,” Al Maghribi said, adding that instructors at the center showed them how to read price tags, explained about American culture and talked about the differences to expect between their schools back home and here in Kent. For instance, In Jordan, the teachers switch classrooms, not the students.

Al Maghribi takes home to her family what she learned at the center, helping them all to better assimilate.

Kennedy, of Myanmar, agreed, saying the center has really helped son Junior.

“The children are the ones who have benefited the most,” Kennedy said through translator Mimi Dislers, a local woman who volunteers at the center. He added that Junior, a kindergartner, is very happy at school.

Kennedy also said that through the center he has met other refugees from Myanmar. And because of the help he’s received there, he feels more prepared than his fellow refugees were at a similar place in their relocation.

“For him, this center has enabled him to really connect with his community,” Dislers said, explaining what Kennedy was expressing to her.

“That is huge,” Vela said of the impact fellow refugees can have in helping their community.

“The Kent School District is doing something that reaches far beyond school,” he said. “It’s about building community and citizenship.”

But for everything they have come through, including escaping Saddam Hussein (who was “as bad and more” than what Americans have heard, according to Al Magrhibi), or being persecuted because they are part of an ethnic minority, the new residents say they are happy for the opportunities they are offered at the center and, more importantly, happy to be in America.

“I like it because we are free here,” Kennedy said without the aid of a translator, a smile spreading across his face.


The Kent School District Refugee Transition Center is located at the Kent Phoenix Academy, 1100 S.E. 264th St. For more information, call the center at 253-373-6934.

Brian Beckley can be reached at 253-437-6012 or

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