Teen immigrants struggle to grasp English, culture


On that cold December afternoon, Monique Ngomba followed hundreds of students out the doors of Patterson High School until she stood, completely baffled, in front of a line of buses.

Monique works on fractions in the ESOL math class taught by Charlie Emerson in her first year at Patterson High School on June 1.
Monique works on fractions in the ESOL math class taught by Charlie Emerson in her first year at Patterson High School on June 1.

It was time to go home, but she had no idea which bus to take.

The skills she had acquired over a childhood spent in crowded refugee camps in central Africa were of no use now. She was expert at harvesting and pounding yucca into meal, gathering firewood and taking care of children. Now, weeks after arriving in Baltimore, she was confronted by many mysteries: electricity, stoves and grocery stores. Even holding a pen was difficult.

She spent all day in an East Baltimore classroom, surrounded by the clatter of unintelligible languages. She spoke no English. She couldn’t read or write, even in her own language of Sango.

With the only interpreter who spoke that language somewhere across the city, she had little help deciphering her new world. Each day, she felt humiliated.

Puzzling over the line of buses, she began to cry. Other students offered her bus passes and money, but that only confused her more.

Monique Ngomba, 16, is shown at home last April in the northeast Baltimore apartment she shared with her parents and younger brother. The Ngomba family is from the Central African Republic, and lived in refugee camps in Chad for 11 years. Monique is the only student at Patterson who speaks Sango, and learning English has been very difficult.(PHOTOS BY AMY DAVIS/BALTIMORE SUN/TNS)
Monique Ngomba, 16, is shown at home last April in the northeast Baltimore apartment she shared with her parents and younger brother. The Ngomba family is from the Central African Republic, and lived in refugee camps in Chad for 11 years. Monique is the only student at Patterson who speaks Sango, and learning English has been very difficult.

Shortly before 4 p.m., a bus pulled up in front of her. She climbed on, if only to escape the scene she was making. Later, through a translator, she described the moment: “It was like an open door to the jungle.”

Desperate for safety
Had she gotten on the right bus, she would have been home in half an hour. Instead, by early evening, as it grew dark and the temperature dropped, her family, caseworker and police were frantically searching for her across Baltimore.

Monique landed in Baltimore because of chaos at home. Her native country, the Central African Republic, is one of many around the world torn by violence for years without capturing much of the world’s attention. Nearly half a million residents have fled from the fighting between militia groups, part of the migration of refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia who are desperate to reach safe places.

The crisis has put pressure on the United States, which accepts about 70,000 refugees annually, to do more.

The Obama administration recently announced that it would raise the ceiling and let in 85,000 refugees next year and 100,000 refugees a year by 2017.

Those coming to Maryland are from a diverse list of countries and speak a wide range of languages.

Shown up front, Monique Ngomba and other students laugh during an exercise in an ESOL class taught by Jill Warzer at Patterson High School last spring.
Shown up front, Monique Ngomba and other students laugh during an exercise in an ESOL class taught by Jill Warzer at Patterson High School last spring.

Most are attracted by the state’s science and technology jobs and are highly educated, according to Randy Capps, director of U.S. research programs at the Migration Policy Institute. But less-educated refugees and undocumented immigrants have also arrived, settling in the Baltimore area and Washington’s suburbs.

Important to economy
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees immigrants — who take desks in city schools and fill empty houses — as important to the city’s economy, and local officials are helping them integrate.

Many of these immigrants, like Monique, end up in East Baltimore’s Patterson High School, which has one of the state’s highest percentages of foreign-language-speaking students. These students, who have interrupted or little schooling, are often a puzzle to educators and may remain in culture shock for months.

To deal with the influx, Patterson and other city schools had to quickly add more teachers for those learning English as well as translators and bilingual social workers. That has helped to drive the city’s annual cost to teach immigrants to $16 million — offering a preview of the issues and costs that many other schools nationwide could soon confront.

Race to help
Margot Harris, the head of Patterson’s English as a Second Language program, and her staff had just one or two semesters to teach Monique and the other newcomers English before they moved into mainstream classes. The teachers were in a desperate race. Somehow, they had to transform the illiterate child of an African farmer into an American teenager ready to pursue a high school diploma.

When Monique disappeared on the bus that December night, her family called Chris Banzadio, a youth caseworker at the International Refugee Committee. He rushed to Patterson and searched the long empty halls. By chance, one of Monique’s teachers, Jill Warzer, was still at her desk.

They contacted the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore police, and by 8 p.m., an officer used a photo of Monique from the school database to send out a citywide alert. Warzer feared that someone might try to kidnap her.

Hated to leave home
As with many arriving foreign students at Patterson, the teachers had received no transcript and little biographical information about Monique. They didn’t know that warring factions in the Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries, forced her family from their village when she was 5 years old.

Her father raised cattle and grew yucca, peanuts, corn and beans, but the harvest was left behind.

They had to walk 24 miles over the border to Chad.

Over the next 11 years, their extended family lived in mud huts that sometimes washed away in the rain, in three different refugee camps. They wanted to return home so badly that when — after eight years — they got a chance to move to the United States, they turned it down.

They knew nothing about the United States and were frightened by the prospect of going to another country. Only when Monique’s father realized that things would never improve in the Central African Republic did he accept the offer to emigrate.

Many challenges
At age 16, Monique was starting high school with the academic skill of a pre-kindergartner.

To keep her from getting lost on the city’s bus system — something that had happened to other students — the school staff had devised an elaborate plan. They paired her with a Nepali girl who lived next door and could guide her back and forth. But that December afternoon, the Nepali girl had an after-school commitment. And Monique’s brother, who acted as a backup, couldn’t find her after the last bell rang, so he went home without her.

Finally, near midnight, Baltimore police got a call that a security guard at Reisterstown Road Plaza — about 14 miles from Patterson — had spotted someone who appeared to need help. An officer found a girl curled into a ball, asleep on the sidewalk. It was 36 degrees.

The officer couldn’t communicate with her but called another officer on his shift, Khady Al-Quarishy, who was from Senegal, hoping she might speak the girl’s language. Al-Quarishy tried French, her native language. Monique understood enough to tell the officer her name.

Welcome at school
She said later that she had wandered the streets, and was so scared she never even felt hungry.

She believed she would never find her home, or see her family again.

After years in the Belom refugee camp, Monique and her family were now living off a four-lane road, down the street from a Giant supermarket and Burger King. But for Monique, as for other immigrant teens, it was the school that would be her portal to this new world.

A rambling building with cloudy windows, patched linoleum floors, no air conditioning and only a hint of Wi-Fi, Patterson has been slated for demolition. Over the past 15 years, the school lost nearly half its enrollment.

But in a city where teens can choose the high school they want to attend, hundreds of immigrants have flocked to Patterson because of its reputation for welcoming them. A third of the school’s roughly 1,000 students are foreign-born. They say they love their school.

They congregate on the third floor, where the classrooms are dedicated largely to teaching English to newcomers. The teachers are often their first link to understanding American culture.

Refuge for frightened
Before coming to the United States, Monique had seen electricity only in a visit to a city. In the camps, she never had running water. Her family’s food rations were often cut back to half-portions, and for years, they were always hungry. In Baltimore, they needed help finding ingredients for meals they were familiar with.

At school, Monique often turned to Mary Kinjoli, a Kenyan immigrant who was hired to be a liaison with families. Kinjoli couldn’t speak Monique’s language, but she spoke Swahili, English and other languages and seemed to be able to pick up cues.

In the camps, Monique had only used latrines, so when she needed to go to the bathroom, she would stop to see Kinjoli, who would take her. Many of the students like Monique are mocked or bullied, particularly in the bathrooms; in one case, Kinjoli said, boys stuffed a student’s head into the toilet.

At lunch, when the other students left the room chattering with each other, Monique usually stayed behind with Warzer, who had become like a second mother to her. Monique would take her food to the back of the classroom, sit next to a computer and put on headphones. She had never worked on a computer before coming to Patterson, and she loved it.

But through the winter, Monique often seemed to be in a complete fog, a stage teachers describe as common for newcomers.

While other students used sign language or gestures to get points across, Monique usually sat silent, watching. Being so silent in class is not uncommon for immigrant children.

“You find this in children who have been traumatized or who have had severe interruptions in their schooling. There are some students who are selectively mute for years,” said Sarah Shin, a professor and co-director of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County master’s degree program in teaching English as a second language.

Extra time to learn
Some Patterson teachers wondered whether Monique had a learning disability or prolonged culture shock, or had been through a traumatic event that was affecting her ability to learn.

As Monique sat silently, she had one thought — “I will not make it” — and considered quitting.

But an older brother who had gone to work to support the family argued vehemently that she should stay in school and try for a better future. He told Monique: “I don’t have the fortune to go to school. But you, they give you the fortune.”

In recent years, as Patterson has faced a wave of new immigrants — including those like Monique, who had low literacy levels — teachers redesigned their model to give students more time to learn English. In 2013, they decided to segregate the newcomers and teach English all day long, with a focus on mathematics, history and writing.

They allowed students to stay in the intensive English classes for one semester — or a school year at the most. As students gained more language skills, they would begin to take regular high school classes for most of the day, followed by a class to work on their English.

Dropout rate
Patterson’s teachers knew these students were in a race. They had a limited time to move from sounding out words to reading novels, from learning addition and subtraction to taking high school algebra. The teachers had to somehow compress eight years of education into one.

Even though the immigrant students in Maryland are given until age 21 to graduate from high school, teachers say that unforgiving timeline doesn’t make sense. Many students leave school — statewide, 28 percent of students with limited English drop out, compared with 8 percent of the general population.

Their achievement on standardized tests is also significantly lower than that of other groups of students. For example, 48 percent of those learning English pass the algebra test, compared with 88 percent of all others statewide.

For many immigrants, the push for an education can lead to heartbreak. Patterson principal Vance Benton said his foreign students believe that if they don’t get an education, that would be the end of a meaningful life.

Across Maryland and the nation, many high schools that never before had significant populations of immigrant students are grappling with their needs. Ten percent of the nation’s public school students are in classes designated for those whose first language is not English.

In the last fiscal year, the federal government spent $737 million — about 2 percent of what it spends on K-12 education — to help school systems around the country educate students whose first language is not English. About $10 million of that money goes to Maryland schools.

That leaves decisions on most of the spending to local schools, which must pick up the cost.

‘Most improved’
In mid-March, after four months of little progress, Monique made a breakthrough. She looked at the word “foot” and drew a picture of feet under it.

In the days that followed, single words, usually nouns, trickled out. When Monique was having trouble with the computer, she turned to Warzer in the middle of class and said her first full English sentence: “It is not working.”

“She answered in English as clear as day,” Warzer said. “Sometimes they listen, and all of a sudden start talking.”

Through a translator, Monique said: “Now, step by step, I start to learn.”

The progress continued through the spring. In English class, she read a question asking for her age and answered it: 16. She could follow simple calculations in her math class, though she went blank when the lesson turned to angles, lines and points.

She also made efforts to conform socially, wearing makeup and braiding her hair.

Near the end of the school year, at an assembly, Warzer gave her the “most improved” certificate.

As Monique walked to the front of the stage in the auditorium, classmates applauded. She gave her teacher a broad smile. She didn’t quite understand the significance of the certificate, but she knew it was something special.

Another hurdle
Over the summer, Monique continued in classes through the Refugee Youth Project, but her family’s worsening finances weighed on her. They had to move to a smaller apartment, and, like so many of her peers at Patterson, she considered quitting school and going to work.

“I don’t know how people live here,” she said, crying.

So far, only Monique’s 22-year-old brother is working full time to support nine people; a second brother is getting job training. The federal government gives refugees a small amount of start-up money per person and the help of a caseworker for a limited time. If they falter, they can apply for public assistance.

On the first day of the fall semester, Monique faced her next big hurdle: She discovered that she had been moved into mainstream classes. She would take only one class to improve her English; the majority of her day would be spent in regular classes.

During a biology class, as the teacher talked about concepts such as cell division, respiration and homeostasis, Monique tried to follow along. But she and other immigrant students were lost.

Monique was trying to read the first sentence of a handout. The few words she got right were “in” and “the.” She still couldn’t read.

She is one of 150 immigrant students in Patterson who were pushed into mainstream classes after a year or less learning English. Most of the students in her biology class were in a similar situation, though almost all had a better grasp of the language.

Harris, who is in charge of English instruction for Patterson’s immigrant students, wishes she could give these kids more time. She doesn’t know whether Monique will make it to graduation.

But at least now, Monique was able to speak some English, her words coming out in simple, understandable sentences. On the first day of school, though she sometimes ended up on the wrong floor or at the wrong classroom, she still maneuvered through the crowded hallways with confidence.

Around her were 74 students who had arrived since July, teens who had been where she was the year before: in culture shock, with no English and no friends. Many carried trauma from their pasts, but they had hope that now things might be different.

Monique had made her own leap. She no longer hid in Warzer’s classroom at lunch. This school year, in the busy cafeteria, she found her place at a table with a few Spanish-speaking girls. Even if there wasn’t a lot of conversation, she had discovered a new food she loved: meatballs. And she finally had someone to sit next to.

“They speak Spanish,” Monique said, smiling, “and I speak English.”



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