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City Heights High School Helps Refugees Become Graduates

City Heights High School Turns Helps Refugees Become Graduates

The New Arrival Center at Crawford High School in City Heights helps immigrant students integrate into the U.S. education system. This video is part of Public Radio International's Global Nation Project, which is made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.

A young man goes from living in a refugee camp in Thailand to graduating from Crawford high school graduate and the special San Diego School District program that helps immigrant students graduate.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Shmoh Lah was 14 years old when he came to San Diego from a Taiwanese refugee camp. Now, he’s getting ready to graduate from Crawford High School.

Lah's journey has been long.

“When I was in the Thailand refugee camp every day, my parents would wake me up at 3 a.m.,” Lah said. “Then we had to travel two hours to get to the place where my father would make a trap.”

When Lah’s family lived in the refugee camp he would forage for food with his father and brother in a forest near the camp.

One day his family got news they were being relocated to the U.S. They ended up in San Diego, and Lah started high school.

“The first day I came to Crawford High School, I didn’t know how to speak English," Lah said.

Skye Cook Piñon teaches in Crawford High School’s New Arrival Center, which is a special class for refugee students.

“If you think about what it would be like to pick up and move at a secondary age, and not only to move to a whole new city, but to move to a new country," Piñon said. “To move to a new style of society.”

New Arrival Center students come from across the globe, it is common to to have as many as 10 languages spoken in NAC classrooms.

Students come from troubled places like Somalia, Sudan and refugee camps in Thailand. The NAC is an intensive class created for students who have had big geopolitical situations hit them head-on.

“The kids come to us and many of them have had situations that have caused them to either have an interrupted education or no education at all,” Piñon said.

When students arrive at the New Arrival Center, their educations start at the beginning.

“We have to teach them how to be a student,” Piñon said.

For seven years the San Diego Unified School District has given students new to English and new to school a special class to help them grow into American high school life. Lah remembers his first day in Crawford High’s New Arrival Center.

“When I first came I didn’t know how to speak English, I (couldn't) even read the alphabet,” Lah said.

The New Arrival Center teachers are deeply invested in student success. If teachers suspect a student is having problems they often go to the student's home to talk with the family. Piñon said problems are often because of the trauma some students have before coming to San Diego.

“We had a student that was struggling with some behavior issues that were stemming from the traumatic experiences that he had,” Piñon said. “We had another student who was having some psychological problems that were manifesting both in her school work, but also physically.”

The families come from places where schools and teachers represent the government. And for some refugees, the government can be scary. Combine that fear with a language barrier and many refugee families are unaware of what’s going on at their child’s school.

New Arrival Center teachers, like Piñon, aim to change that.

“One of the girls was struggling with feeling like she could be successful here. (We) got a translator and showed up at her house,“ Piñon said.

Six schools in the San Diego Unified School District have New Arrival Center classrooms. Crawford has the largest concentration of refugee students.

For these students, like Lah, graduating from high school is a huge accomplishment.

“I have big hopes for this school. It's going to lead me to my future — it's going to give me a better life,” Lah said.

After four years and a lot of work Lah’s high school journey at Crawford is coming to an end. Lah is set to start at San Diego City College in the fall.

“Right now I’m about to graduate and I’m very excited about getting into the real world, then to get onto my path,” Lah said. “I’m going to go to college soon and try really hard to get my nursing degree.”

This story is part of Public Radio International's Global Nation Project, which is made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.

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