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Refugee Students Find Hope

April 10, 2013 By:
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Avivah Pinski fights for the future of refugee students like Samson Tesfamariam (left) and Ghanashayam Gautam.

Avivah Pinski’s father heard anti-Semitic taunts while walking the streets of Warsaw in the early 20th century. He and his immediate family left for America in 1919 but close relatives died in the Holocaust. At their seder every year in New York, her father would open the door for Elijah and tell the family they should be grateful that they could safely perform the ritual. 

“All my relatives sang, ‘God Bless America,’ at the top of their lungs,” Pinski, a civil rights attorney, said.

Her family’s appreciation of America’s place in the world made an impression on Pinski, 73, and she has spent much of her career representing foreigners and others in tough circumstances in cases involving employment discrimination and other issues. 

But in recent years, Pinski has downsized her law practice and spent much of her time helping refugee students navigate the often-difficult Philadelphia public school system and, in some cases, helping them start a new life.

“They’ve come here just as some of our ancestors did. They’re very motivated, and I feel like they will be marvelous contributing citizens to our country in the future,” said Pinski, who also serves as co-chairwoman of a refugee resettlement program operated cooperatively by Main Line Reform Temple and HIAS Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization.

Volunteers help clients find housing, drive them to appointments and act as English-language conversation partners.

As one of those volunteers, Pinski helped them learn to speak English but seemed to have trouble with the word, “Goodbye.”

Two of the students Pinski hasn’t let go of are Samson Tesfamariam and Ghanashayam Gautam. One is from Eritrea and the other is from Nepal, but they shared traumatic introductions into the Philadelphia public school system. They also share a profound adoration for Pinski, who helped them transfer to better schools, find housing and apply to colleges.

As Tesfamariam put it, “She doesn’t give up on people. She makes you do more.”

One thing she didn’t give up on was how to improve the school situation for Tesfamariam and Gautam at South Philadelphia High School, where many refugee students are placed. The school, where a quarter of the students are learning English as a second language, was the site of significant racial violence a few years ago and an institution that the state designated as persistently dangerous from 2007 until this year. According to the state’s department of education, more students drop out than graduate each year from Southern, as South Philadelphia is colloquially known.

Pinski, the mother of three adult children and grandmother of three, started worrying about Southern after hearing stories from refugees about the school’s unruly climate.

“Unless young people can envision some kind of a future, they’re not going to do anything to work towards a dream,” said Pinski, who looks a shade over five feet and wears glasses.

An orphan refugee from Eritrea, Tesfamariam came to this country in 2010. He said his father was forced to leave the family at the start of a bloody war with Ethiopia more than a decade earlier, and then a few years later, his mother died from a snakebite.

In a recent interview, he said he fixated on what he could have done to save his mother and decided that he would study medicine. He had been a drinker and smoker after her death, but with his new goal in mind, he changed and became a top student at a local school. A few years later, he and some siblings were granted asylum in America. The family settled in West Philadelphia. Tesfamariam may have been dreaming of becoming a doctor, but first he needed an adult who would listen to the problems occurring in his 10th grade math class.

His friend Gautam also hopes to become a doctor someday. Gautam’s family came to the country in 2008 from a refugee camp in Nepal and spent two years in Boise, Idaho. His father worked at Wal-Mart, and it was a quiet, comfortable existence. But the family decided to move to South Philadelphia to join other relatives. Gautam said he was satisfied with the education he received in Idaho and was not concerned about the move or what might face him in Philadelphia’s schools.

While walking through the cafeteria on one of his first days at Southern, Tesfamariam saw Gautam, a shorter boy with brown skin, and asked him if he was Indian. Tesfamariam had paid 50 cents a few nights each week to watch Bollywood movies in the living room of someone’s home in Eritrea and thought that Gautam looked like the people in the films. The two discussed their favorite actors from the film genre and formed a friendship.

“He’s my little brother, and when I have a problem I tell him, and when he has a problem, he tells me,” Tesfamariam said.

The students had plenty to talk about. Gautam said he was harassed and beaten up a handful of times his first year at Southern. He reported the incidents to administrators, who did little to help, but didn’t tell his parents until after the fourth encounter, when they asked about the cuts and bruises, he said. (His father is in poor health after years of spraying pesticides at a farm in Nepal without adequate protection and Gautam said he didn’t want to create additional worries.)

Both students were also troubled by remedial classes in which they felt they were wasting time. They requested more advanced math classes and a science class but received no response from teachers or administrators. They were also amazed by the sounds of the classroom: students’ radios blaring, teachers trying to shout over the ruckus.

“The lack of education in Philadelphia is far worse than any of us know unless we have direct contact,” said Pinski. “I believe it’s criminal. I think this is affecting the whole population, not just people in the city.”

With that frustration in mind, Pinski has inundated Philadelphia public school officials with letters detailing her students’ problems over the last several years. She’s sent letters to board members, teachers, administrators, organizations like the Education Law Center and has testified before the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations on issues such as violence in schools.

District officials and the principal of Southern, Otis Hackney, did not return calls seeking comment on problems at the school.

Pinski said Tesfamariam and other refugees also face more hurdles when entering the schools than American-born students because of issues with academic records from their native countries. Tesfamariam’s records are so deficient he doesn’t even know how old he is. In some cases, the students have the records but they are not in English and require translation, a Philadelphia public school official said.

After Pinski met with Philadelphia public school administrators, Tesfamariam and Gautam were moved into more appropriate classes. They started covering new material, but the overall atmosphere was no more conducive to learning, the students said. Eventually, Pinski started working to move them into new schools.

She arranged for Tesfamariam to live with a family in Wynne­wood in 2011. The homeowners generously rented a guesthouse behind their home to Tesfamariam for less than the cost of the monthly electricity bill. He started to attend Lower Merion High School that year as a junior.

For his part, Gautam transferred in January 2012 to Parkway Center City High School, where students tested above the state average in math, reading and writing, as opposed to far below it at South Philadelphia. It’s a special admittance public school, and Pinski accompanied him through the process of applying and enrolling. 

Even though the two students left Southern, Pinski did not want other refugees who had no advocate to drown in the school’s turbulent atmosphere.

She drafted a protocol for Philadelphia schools to use in giving students proper credit for past courses completed and ensuring that they are in appropriate classes. 

The district implemented its own protocol last year after hearing from administrators at South Philadelphia, according to Deborah Wei, acting deputy of the Philadelphia school district’s Office of Multilingual Curriculum and Programs. Wei said she never met with Pinski about her proposed protocol but that her efforts could have prompted South Philadelphia administrators to contact her office about issues with refugee students.

The two students are now much happier at their new schools. Tesfamariam’s eyes grew wide as he described his first day when he walked through the hallways and saw a modern space brimming with Apple products. The school, which moved into a $100 million building in 2010, spends about $25,000 per student each year, more than double what is allocated to students in Phila­delphia public schools.

“I didn’t have words to express my thoughts about this building,” Tesfamariam said of the high school. “It is just so beautiful, it attracts your eyes like it’s saying, ‘Come.’ ”

But the biggest difference, he said, is in how students treat teachers. 

Tesfamariam and Gautam, who still lives with his family in South Philadelphia, spend most weekends at the guesthouse in Wynnewood. Tesfamariam said he initially couldn’t comprehend that there was a pool outside his window and that it was his to use.

Pinski has been helping the students at their different stages of the college application process. Tesfamariam has already been accepted into several schools, including Ursinus, La Salle and Saint Joseph’s. Gautam, as a junior, is beginning his search.

Both students appear to appreciate their changes in fortune and the person who was in large part behind them.

Gautam said he is no longer fearful of getting beat up or of the future.

“She was there for me. She’s the one to help turn my life around,” Gautam said of Pinski.

For Tesfamariam, a crucial part of his life is no longer missing.

“When my Mom died, I believed I’m not going to have a Mom again. I’m never going to get love again,” he said. Pinski is “like my mom. Every woman should be like her.”

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