Helping Iraqi Refugee Children Overcome Obstacles

Thanks to Dedicated Staff and Volunteers, Opening Doors' RHEAP is a Terrific Resource for Children New to America



Refugees face many obstacles when they arrive in the United States, including language barriers, difficulty finding employment, and the challenge of understanding all aspects of the culture. Refugee families face even more challenges because their children are immersed in a school system that is very different from what exists in their home country, and where they are considered different and generally not understood by their peers. Our Refugee Health and Employment Attainment Program, which offers ESL and healthy living classes to Iraqi refugees, has now created a program specifically for children.


The Refugee Health and Employment Attainment Program (RHEAP) originally began as a vocational English language program, but has since expanded to provide many other services, including healthy living and healthcare system navigation skills to adults. Now RHEAP's Kids Program is providing structured but fun educational activities for refugee children as well. RHEAP Program Director, Russul Tawffeq, heads the Kids Program, and describes the expansion. "Now, we are bringing in volunteer specialists who can teach the kids about various subjects and subprograms." One of these volunteers, a nurse, teaches the kids about hygiene, first aid, CPR, and emergency preparedness. The nurse is covering everything from the basics of tooth brushing and flossing to water safety as summer approaches.


In addition to health and hygiene classes, there is also a financial education component of the program that teaches the kids the basics about money management, including how to use a bank account. Volunteer teachers use two FDIC curricula, one for kids younger than 12 years old and one for kids 12 and up. Even though many of the kids are too young to get a job, they learn how to earn money by mowing lawns and babysitting, and how to save money by recycling and managing spending habits.


The new Kids Program also includes discussions about bullying. Many of the kids encounter bullying at school, especially those who do not speak English well. Emily Feuerherm, the ESL coordinator of RHEAP, has seen how bullying has affected the kids in the program. "Many have experienced bullies since coming to the U.S., which makes the transition that much more difficult. Not only have they left family and friends behind, they come to a place that does not understand them and teases them for being different."


A volunteer psychiatrist discusses bullying with the children to help them understand and handle their experiences. They first discuss emotions and how to work through feelings effectively, and then they cover healthy and unhealthy choices and appropriate responses to being bullied. Part of the goal is to start a dialogue around bullying so the kids will feel comfortable discussing something that might otherwise be taboo. Russul feels bullying must be addressed in the Iraqi refugee community. "While many might be ashamed to discuss the issue, it is a big issue that can have a lifelong effect, and we must solve it." Russul encourages her community to talk about bullying. She stresses the importance of parents approaching school principals and teachers to address the roots of bullying, as well as the effects it has on children in schools. The goal is to help the children in the Kids Program feel comfortable with confiding in adults when they are being bullied, and reporting the bullying to their teachers or parents.


The Kids Program is directed at the children, but it also benefits their parents. According to Russul, teaching the kids about finances will ultimately lead to better-educated parents: "For many of the kids, they aren't taught a lot about the US financial system because their parents are only familiar with checking accounts and savings. They don't know about credit or paying bills on time to avoid a fee. If we teach the kids these financial management skills, they will in turn teach their parents." Russul notes that many of the parents join RHEAP because they want their children to learn English and about American culture. "Kids take in information like a sponge, and many parents rely on their children to translate for them." As someone who came here as a refugee, Russul remembers investing in her children's growth and education for their own benefit and to help her learn as well. In her eyes, if her children succeeded, she would as well.


RHEAP will still measure its successes in terms of helping the adults reach their goals: the adults' program will continue to help them learn English, prepare for citizenship, find employment, and connect with the community. However, now with part of the program aimed at the children, RHEAP can better help families adjust to American life and culture and become self-sufficient in a new country.