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Pitman students help African refugees feel at home
PHS refugee helpers
Pitman High School seniors Jenna Greene and David Moncur have gone above and beyond to help two new classmates who are refugees from the African country of Eritrea settle in to their new home and campus (Photo contributed).

Walking onto a high school campus as the “new kid” is a daunting task no matter what, but the challenge was even more frightening for a pair of African refugees when they started the school year without knowing a word of English. Through a friendship with two of their classmates, the Turlock newcomers are learning the ropes and starting a new life at Pitman High School.

The International Rescue Committee helped the pair arrive in Turlock with their parents and three younger siblings at the beginning of the summer, leaving behind their home country of Eritrea on the coast of the Red Sea in Africa where they had lived in a refugee camp for the past seven years. They started the school year at PHS and have made tremendous progress learning how to navigate the campus, complete their school work and communicate with other members of the Pride thanks largely in part to their new friends, seniors Jenna Greene and David Moncur.

“I think it’s been a huge lesson on not only acceptance, but for us it was a reality check to see how much they’ve had to change their way of life just to start over here,” Greene said. “They’ve come here and they don’t speak any English, so day-to-day things that are hard for us are 100 times harder for them.”

Greene and Moncur didn’t necessarily volunteer to take their new friends from Eritrea under their wing, but when their art teacher asked the pair to look out for the refugees, the two went above and beyond. Not only have Greene and Moncur helped tutor the new students in subjects like English and math, but the duo has helped their new classmates find bikes to ride to school, purchased them clothing and even taught them how to go grocery shopping.

Over the course of several months, the students have thrived in the PHS environment that’s also home to refugees from other countries, like Syria.

“(They) were really shy when they first came in, and obviously that’s reasonable because they didn’t know anyone and everything was totally foreign,” Moncur said. “I think they’re adjusting well. They seem like they’re making friends now, and they’re both learning to have conversations.”

The language barrier is the only thing that’s held the refugees back, Greene added. Their native language is Tigrinya, which is only spoken by about two million people worldwide. It’s such a rare language, in fact, that Google translate doesn’t even know it. To communicate, Greene and Moncur use a dictionary app that is able to translate one word at a time, and also show their new classmates pictures on their phones. It’s tedious, but effective.

“Their speaking is improving a lot, but I think the writing is going to come a little bit later and so much of the school work is being able to read and write,” Greene said. “Before when we’d try to talk to one of them, he’d just laugh and have nothing to say back, but the other day we stopped by his house and he was responding to our questions. He’s doing a lot better.”

In October, another pair of refugee students from Eritrea arrived at PHS. Just like the IRC has done with Syrian refugees, the organization is attempting to create an environment in Turlock for Eritrean refugees. There are three families from Eritrea who have found homes in Turlock; the father of Greene and Moncur’s new friends works at Foster Farms, and one of their siblings attends elementary school in town. The refugees’ case worker, who is also an Eritrean native, has helped translate some, but there are still some gaps in the two parties’ communication.

“I’m really happy for them, and I find myself wishing I could communicate more with their parents because their kids are really amazing. But, I’m sure they know that,” Greene said. “They should be so proud of their kids. Watching them, they’re really strong and I don’t think if I were in their situation I would be as confident. They hold their heads really high.”

While the Turlock community has proven to be a welcoming home for refugees from various countries, Greene believes more can be done to ensure students feel welcome on the city’s high school campuses.

“I’ve actually seen people laughing about them and talking about them, and that’s a really hard thing for me because being a kind person is having empathy for people. You have to put yourself in their place and see the situation they’re in,” she said.

Moncur believes that if more students took time to understand where their new classmates came from, they’d be more empathetic.

“It’s a learning experience and it opens your eyes. It’s easy to be ignorant of the world that surrounds us, but there’s a lot of stuff going on and it’s a much bigger world than just Turlock,” he said. “There are other countries…We have it pretty good and it’s easy to just dismiss that there are bad things going on.”

At school, the refugees are making new friends and learning quickly. One shares stories about his home country with Greene, like how he used to care for a pet bird prior to leaving for America. The experience has not only been beneficial for the brothers, but for Greene and Moncur as well.

“When you see something different, it’s easy to just ignore it or even be scared of it. I think what we need to understand is that we’re all human and we can all communicate, even if it’s not with language,” Greene said. “A smile in the hallway goes a long way for acceptance. You’ve just gotta put yourself out there and it changes you.”