Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR with a year-end gift today for 2 chances to win a trip to Aruba!

Somali Students Help Teachers Learn What It's Like To Be A Refugee


Over the last 15 years or so, thousands of refugees have flowed from Somalia into the small, historically white town of Lewiston, Maine. For many of the youngest refugees, the move has meant adjusting to a new school and a school climate that can make them feel rejected.

Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg reports on a group of students trying to change that by teaching their teachers about what it means to be a refugee.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Lewiston High School junior Hodan Mosae (ph) cringes when she talks about a moment in the school cafeteria last November. Mosae says she and her friend, both refugees, walked into the lunchroom in the days leading up to the election. She says they joked about a student's Donald Trump shirt.

HODAN: And he was like, yeah, when Donald Trump becomes president, you won't be here. Like, you'll be kicked out.

FEINBERG: How does it feel to hear that stuff?

HODAN: I was, like, shocked.


HODAN: I was really, really shocked.

FEINBERG: Nearly a quarter of the students in Lewiston High School are African refugees. Yet inside, many say they're still treated like outsiders. There's the name calling from other kids. But junior Maryamo Elmoge says it comes from teachers, too. According to federal data, the black, mostly African students here receive suspensions at a rate 60 percent higher than the student body as a whole.

MARYAMO: Or like, oh, that's the black kid that always gets in trouble. So they always assume that you'll get in trouble or you're always that bad kid. Like, we don't want them to think that way of us.

FEINBERG: About a year ago, about 20 of these students got together as part of an after-school leadership group. They complained to each other about this unequal treatment. But instead of stopping there, these students decided they wanted to do something about it, to gather the school's mostly white teachers in a room, sit them down and educate them about their culture. Principal Shawn Chabot says he was initially reluctant about the idea.

SHAWN CHABOT: You want to believe that everybody treats everyone, regardless of their culture or their race, equally. But I think we'd be putting our heads in the sand if that was reality.

FEINBERG: Chabot says after he heard these students' stories and the data they brought forward on racism and discipline, he saw they were serious. And last fall, he agreed to let them lead a training for more than 50 school staff.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. So we're going to go ahead and get started.

FEINBERG: Now every month, students, administrators and teachers keep that conversation going inside a basement classroom. Today, the group discusses why so many students are tardy.

ABDUL MOHAMED: What really helps with that is communication with students.

FEINBERG: Student Abdul Mohamed tells his story. He says he's late because he doesn't feel his teachers care much for him or other refugees.

MOHAMED: I don't really have a connection with a lot of my teachers. So if they don't - like, if I go to class and if I'm late, they wouldn't care. They'll just mark me absent.

FEINBERG: Mohamed says he feels getting a detention won't change the fact that teachers don't care about him.

PAULA GERENCER: I think that's an unfair assumption.

FEINBERG: Teacher Paula Gerencer interjects. She says if any student was absent a lot, a staff member would reach out.

GERENCER: From a teacher's point of view, somebody probably hopefully would say something.

MOHAMED: Well, maybe. I don't know.

FEINBERG: These kinds of conversations aren't easy. But they are making a difference. English teacher Donna Olsen says the students made her see that she needs to explain why she's punishing a student and let them know they're not getting in trouble just because they're African.

DONNA OLSEN: I really need to be clear on when I have a conversation with a student or when I - even if there's a consequence for a behavior that I don't find I approve of, I need to be really clear about the reasons behind it.

FEINBERG: As for the refugees, they're now even working with school staff to help shape policy around race. In a community where they're often shut out, the students say leading these trainings has helped them find their voice. For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Lewiston, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HARGROVE'S "I'M NOT SO SURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robbie grew up in New Hampshire, but has since written stories for radio stations from Washington, D.C., to a fishing village in Alaska. Robbie graduated from the University of Maryland and got his start in public radio at the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Before arriving at Maine Public Radio, he worked in the Midwest, where he covered everything from beer to migrant labor for public radio station WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.