The truth about my refugee students

The truth about my refugee students
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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a voice for my students. As the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, I was able to speak with President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE. I used these few minutes to hand him letters from my immigrant and refugee students.

This was not merely a symbolic gesture. My students are focused and dedicated children. They have dreams, and they wanted to share with the president their plans for giving back to the nation that has given them hope and freedom.


It is a desire that is misunderstood far too often. Having worked as a teacher in our refugee community in Spokane, Wash., for the past 10 years, it frustrates me to hear the unfair criticism and common misconceptions about this community made by those with limited knowledge of refugees, who they are, and their circumstances.


Here are some basic facts about our nation’s refugee community:

First, not every immigrant is a refugee. Refugees enter the United States legally and are documented. They escape war and trauma in their homelands. As such, only individuals from specific areas of the world can be designated as refugees. For most refugees, it takes 18 to 24 months to complete the rigorous vetting process.

Second, refugees add revenue to our communities. A 2017 draft report from the HHS fund reported that over the course of 10 years, refugees added $63 billion more in federal tax revenue than they received in outlays. Refugees contribute to and create many resources for our country.

Third, refugees are wonderful neighbors who do not pose a threat to our communities. No U.S. citizens have been killed in a terrorist attack by refugees for more than 30 years.

But the most important fact about this community, based on what I’ve seen in my many years of experience, is that they are passionate believers in the American dream.

They value citizenship. Refugees who have lived in America for more than 16 years are more likely to become naturalized U.S. citizens than other immigrant groups.

They consistently demonstrate enterprise and initiative. Refugees are also more likely to start a business than citizens born within the U.S. or other immigrants. A report from the Center for American Progress on Somali, Burmese, Hmong, and Bosnian refugees reports that refugees gradually see growth in their wages and gradually obtain white-collar jobs.

They prioritize education. Six of the graduates from Ferris High School last year who were refugees entered as refugees in 9th grade with very little English when they arrived. Now, all six are attending college. Several are pursuing degrees in medicine, one wants to be a teacher and one is a runner with Olympic potential. One student, who came to the U.S. in 2012 at 15 years old with only a 4th grade education, graduated from high school in 2016, became a U.S. citizen this past winter, and is currently studying to be an elementary school teacher at university.

These students exemplify who refugees really are — a driven, dynamic community, keenly aware of the opportunities available to them in this nation. 

These remarkable young people, however, cannot achieve all they do on their own. Much like those born in the United States, they need community, a support system and a sense of belonging. If problems arise, they arise not because of racial or cultural differences, but because of isolation and fear. In the Spokane area, World Relief helps facilitate this community. When a family comes to town, World Relief helps them settle in and places students in the Spokane school system. I work with World Relief as part of this resettlement process.

They also have systems in place to support teachers, like me, as we help students integrate into the community. Not only do I spend my days helping students learn English and math, but I also help them develop the cultural and social skills they’ll need to succeed in an American high school. I meet with my students’ whole families through home visits to create a parent-child-teacher partnership to support each student’s education. I also encourage students born in the U.S. to connect with our refugee students. I set up opportunities for our students to meet and build friendships and encourage my students to participate in clubs and sports. These connections and friendships support refugee students in being successful in school and in our community.

I know these students have so much to offer our country, but today, our political leaders at the national level have not shown that they are aware of this. There has been a huge drop in refugees entering over the past several months, and if current trends continue, this year we will see the fewest admittances in 38 years. At a time when millions of humans — including many children — across the planet are seeking refuge due to unspeakable terrors, we are betraying our national values of dignity and compassion by closing our doors.

Not only do we need to increase the number of refugees we are inviting into our nation, but we also need to increase public support for programs like World Relief. Throughout my years working with refugee students, World Relief has been invaluable. School districts are not equipped to handle many of the resettlement issues our students face. Organizations like World Relief offer tailored expertise and years of experience. They are a vital part of the community at large. These kinds of partnerships are crucial in ensuring those seeking refuge in our community feel connected and confident in their new home. 

I hope the president reads my students’ letters. I hope he and other leaders can discover what I have the privilege of encountering in my classroom every day: Refugee students who are committed to giving back by becoming productive citizens of the United States. Although they might look or sound different, behind the faces of these newcomers are minds committed to the American project and hearts loyal to the American dream.

Mandy Manning is a teacher at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington, and the recipient of the 2018 National Teacher of the Year award.