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Refugee Outreach Club helps students settle in at Lansdowne

For children who move to Lexington as refugees, getting comfortable in their new environment and learning how to do school can take some extra time and special attention. While negotiating an unfamiliar cultural context, they often struggle with social awareness and relationship skills. That’s where the new Refugee Outreach Club at Lansdowne Elementary comes into play. “All kids worry about fitting in, and certainly these kids do as well. Here, they can be themselves,” said guidance counselor Brenda Adams, who coordinates the program. 

Lansdowne has welcomed refugees from several areas of Africa, Nepal (South Asia), and the Middle East. “They’re not likely kids who would reach out even if something’s going on. They’re not used to identifying their feelings or figuring out what to do with them,” Adams explained. She has divided the nearly 40 club participants into four sections – Swahili, Nepali, and two in Arabic (grades K-3 and 4-5). “This gives them an extra space to process, and they’re grouped by languages so they have commonalities when sharing,” she said. 

Three English language learner (EL) teachers, the school’s social worker, and the art teacher lead the weekly lessons, and an interpreter is on hand in each classroom. The goal is to improve social/emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic outcomes. The club also helps students develop a support network and build relationships with adults to foster a sense of community. “It’s a safe place to share about what they’re feeling. When you talk about emotions, it’s difficult to put into words – even for native speakers,” said EL teacher Natalie O’Dea, who is picking up some Arabic vocabulary along the way. One of her students, 11-year-old Omar Alouao, has already learned how the parts of the brain work and how certain triggers can lead to physical reactions. “It’s teaching us how to be in control of our body,” he said. “If we can’t keep our emotions calm, we’d be all over the place.” 

Along with calming exercises and coping skills, the leaders share videos and library books of refugee stories so the children can connect with their experience. The Monday afternoon groups also play games and create artwork. 

The club is possible because of a Fayette County Public Schools grant proposal; it was one of 40 among nearly 800 applicants chosen for SEL in Action Awards for Districts. The $25,000 grant covers stipends for staffing the after-school club, the social/emotional learning curriculum “Second Step,” and family night programs. Tates Creek Elementary also received the grant, but opted to delay its launch until this fall. Lansdowne, which started small after spring break, plans to grow its club, reach out to the students’ families, and involve community partners. Working with the families is key. “They’re not sure about some of these things because of cultural differences, so we want to offer resources to them as well,” Adams said.

(Posted April 28, 2021) 

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