KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – AUGUST 21: In this handout image provided by the Ministry of Defence, the British armed forces work with the U.S. military to evacuate
eligible civilians and their families out of the country on August 21, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. British armed forces have been evacuation UK citizens and eligible personnel out of the Afghan capital after the Taliban took control of the country last week. (Photo by MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images) (MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Im)
Afghanistan: Humanitarian Crisis Arrives in St. Louis
Amid the influx of Afghan refugees, the CHS Globe explores aspects of the refugees' arrival in St. Louis.
Afghanistan is a largely mountainous country landlocked in a cramped position at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. The nation shares a similar area to Texas, but to call Afghanistan a nation may be somewhat forgiving of its various communities. Afghanistan has many ethnic groups which include the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, and other ethnic minorities, many of whom wouldn’t believe in an identity as so-called “Afghans,” but rather their own respective ethnicities. With these ethnic differences, there has never been a concrete national identity in Afghanistan.
For most of its history, Afghanistan consisted of loose agreements between those previously-mentioned ethnic groups and an authority based in the national capital of Kabul, most often a shah or king, an emir, or just some nobleman in general. In exchange for relative autonomy and the ability to live their traditional way of life, these ethnic groups would give their support to whoever would preside over the national government in Kabul. This meant that whoever would govern the country would have to walk on eggshells to respect the boundaries drawn by tribal Afghans, many of whom live in almost-secluded mountainous rural communities and fiercely abide by their traditional customs.
These divisions aren’t just ethnic, but they also consist of clan divisions that vie to keep their ancestral property. What established Afghanistan as having the semblance of a nation was during the Anglo-Afghan Wars between 1838 and 1921.
Afghanistan was entangled in a rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century in what was called “the Great Game,” where Afghanistan became sovereign as it successfully resisted subjugation and made truce agreements with the two empires.
In 1933, Zahir Shah of the Pashtun “Barakzai” family became the king of Afghanistan, bringing stability to the country for the next 40 years of his reign, during which he extended the nation’s diplomatic relations and made efforts towards modernity, creating a constitutional monarchy system.
The following year, in 1934, the United States formally recognized the government of Afghanistan. However, this prolonged period of peace was not to last.
These social reforms were controversial among many Afghans, especially those who lived in rural regions, because it violated their fiercely traditional norms that emphasized the leadership of men.”
In 1973, Mohammad Daoud Khan, pro-Soviet general and cousin of Zahir Shah, staged a coup, overthrowing the monarchy to establish Afghanistan as a republic. Khan was originally the Afghan Prime Minister from 1953-1963, until he fell out with his cousin. At first he tried to appease both American and Soviet interests, but border disputes with the US-aligned Pakistan pushed his government closer to the Soviet Union. During his leadership as prime minister, Khan carried out progressive social and educational reforms, which included extending opportunities for women in higher education and the public sphere.
These social reforms were controversial among many Afghans, especially those who lived in rural regions, because it violated their fiercely traditional norms that emphasized the leadership of men. Afghanistan’s new pro-Soviet policy at once attracted the attention of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. The nations became close allies, drastically increasing Cold War tensions with the U.S. During the Cold War the Soviet Union had a significant desire to spread influence and ascertain the loyalty of potential allies.
According to Dr. Paul Hoelscher, Clayton High School AP World History teacher and Social Studies Coordinator for the School District of Clayton, “Throughout the 70s, the Soviet Union increasingly became involved in making sure there was a government that was loyal to them or that they felt would provide a little bit of a geo-political buffer or ally during the Cold War.”
The Afghan Communist Party began to secretly emerge in the mid-1960s, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, who would later become president. In 1978, President Daoud was overthrown and murdered in a coup led by a group of pro-communist rebels. Taraki then took his place as president, with principal leader Babrak Karmal as deputy prime minister. Together they formed an Afghanistan based on Islamic principles and socioeconomic justice, while continuing President Daoud’s reforms, albeit with significantly more political repression.
In June of 1978 the rebel group known as the Mujahideen emerged to fight back against the social changes supported by former president Mohammad Daoud Khan. To contribute to their efforts against the Soviet-backed government, the U.S. offered the Mujahideen extensive funds and foreign military support by funneling the support through nearby Pakistan and their intelligence organization. The Soviet Union grew anxious about the growing power of the rebels in the region, worrying that uprisings would weaken the integrity of the government. They were also worried by the growing disregard the Afghan Communist government under Taraki had when it came to how unpopular the Kabul government was getting in rural provinces.
In 1979, American Ambassador to Afghanistan Adolph Dubs was murdered, causing the U.S. to withdraw assistance to Afghanistan. On December 24, the USSR invaded Afghanistan in an ill-fated attempt to revive the failing pro-Soviet government after assassinating and replacing Taraki’s government with Babrak Kamal as president.
What ensued was a 10-year proxy war between the U.S. and the USSR, which resulted in the death of more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers. Interference in Afghanistan proved to be a continual burden on the Soviet economy, and in 1988 the USSR withdrew their forces. Although the Mujahideen had made significant progress, Soviet influence still dominated, and the battle continued against the current president at the time, Mohammad Najibullah until his government collapsed in 1992 as Soviet military supplies dwindled.
After experiencing years of famine, poverty, and war, the Afghan people were eager for a return to the peace and stability the nation enjoyed under Zahir Shah but to no avail. Without a common Afghan national identity, to form a central government for all Afghans is one that’s bitterly contested among all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. This common frustration combined with a power vacuum in Kabul created an ideal environment for a new Islamic militia, the Taliban, to rise to power
Hoelscher explained, “The Taliban comes out of youthful movements in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. After the Soviet withdrawal there was chaos, just anarchy and total destruction… For [the U.S.], just a tie was a victory. We weren’t worried about the casualties or the destruction, we were just trying to limit the power of the Soviet Union.”
The Taliban’s name means “students” in the Afghan language of Pashto.
The Soviet withdrawal left Afghanistan devastated, and today many Americans wonder whether the U.S. should have provided more aid to ensure the country’s stability before leaving.
“A lot of people are looking back at the 1990s asking if we should have done more for the people that were our allies or should we have done more to economically stabilize Afghanistan,” said Hoelscher. “And it’s hard in hindsight, but we look back and say that out of that chaos and out of that turmoil, when the Soviets withdrew it was the perfect recipe for the Taliban to come to power.”Afghanistan in the early 1990s lacked a solid infrastructure network, and the Taliban had given many people the hope that their country would experience a return to security and traditional Islamic values. While the Taliban did enforce laws to tackle crime and the sale of drugs, the country’s new Sharia law significantly limited women’s education and employment and demanded a strict adherence to gender norms. Women were required to be fully veiled outside their homes and remain in the company of a partner or guardian, and laws were further enforced by public floggings and executions. Since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August of this year, the group’s promises to protect women’s rights have largely been unfulfilled. As of now there is still great uncertainty whether the Taliban’s attempts to legitimize and moderate their government will be successful.
As Dr. Hoelscher sees the situation, “They might try to legitimize their role, but there is still likely to be more repression of women and political censorship.”
During the 1970s and 80s, Osama bin Laden, the 17th child of a millionaire construction magnate, began providing the Mujahideen rebels with funds, weapons, and fighters. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, bin Laden created the Sunni militant organization Al Qaeda for the purpose of fighting future holy wars globally.
Before the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, few Americans knew about Al Qaeda at all, much less the extent its activities would have on the lives of millions of people across the world. On December 19, 1992, Al Qaeda carried out its first attack in Aden, Yemen. In 1993, the first attack on the World trade Center occured, led by Ramzi Yousef, a Pakistani terrorist that had trained in Al-Qaeda’s camps. In 1998, Al-Qaeda operatives carried out bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, killing 224 and unjuring more than 5,000 others.
On September 11th, 19 men hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two of them into the upper floors of the south and north towers of the World trade Center. Today the 9/11 attacks stand as the most deadly and traumatic terrorist attacks to ever occur in the United States, resulting in 3,000 deaths, 25,000 injuries, and billions of dollars worth of damages in infrastructure.
On October 7, an intense bombing campaign led by American and British forces began, targeting Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan as part of the United States’ “war on terror,” a response to the devastating events of 9/11. According to Hoelscher, the alliance between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is the greatest concern of the U.S., as it poses the greatest threat to national security.
“The problem is, they allowed groups, Al-Qaeda being the most famous, to be there and train there. So a question from the 90s that is very pertinent today is, what were the relationships between Al-Qaeda, which we know as an international terrorist organization, and the government of the Taliban. To what degree did they work together? To what degree did the Taliban government feel like it needed to house or protect or allow Al-Qaeda to be there, to legitimize their rule at the time?”
As US and NATO’s forces drove out and nested in Afghanistan’s major cities in 2001, a nation-building project was started where a new US-backed government was propped from Kabul. Although NATO forces were able to crush most of Al-Qaeda’s forces and later kill Osama bin-Laden, the challenge of stifling the Taliban that captured the hearts of many rural Afghans while also leaving behind a stable and functional government in Afghanistan ended up becoming the main objective of the US and NATO. The US-backed government was rife with corruption and embezzlement by government officials, while also facing issues with collateral damage where the US Air Force would kill civilians in airstrikes as a result of poor intelligence. Chief Foreign-Affairs Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov, reported that in a survey of 15-30 year old men in two southern Afghan provinces, 92% of respondents said they didn’t know about “this event which foreigners call 9/11” even after they were given a three-paragraph description of the attacks. Many Afghans didn’t even know the reason why their country was invaded.
…At what point do foreign conflicts merit attention and supplies? What ideological battles is the U.S. willing to fight?”
Combined with the corruption and the embezzlement of foreign funds, the incompetence of Afghan leaders to lead the country without their hands being held by their foreign allies militarily, and increasing pessimism with the length of the war led to many Afghans being torn over the war and the militaries that promised to protect them. And meanwhile on the US homefront, public opinion for the war—overwhelmingly positive at first in the aftermath of 9/11—slumped as many Americans reasoned that the length of the war as America’s longest war points to why US forces should withdraw from the war torn country.
In many ways, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan mirrors other major geopolitical conflicts such as the Vietnam War, which increasingly lost the support of the American people as efforts to prevent the spread of communism proved a fruitless endeavor. Throughout its history, the United States has struggled to find a balance between intervention and non-interventionism; and when it comes to international affairs, many Americans are left wondering, at what point do foreign conflicts merit attention and supplies? What ideological battles is the U.S. willing to fight?
As Hoelscher said, “The pragmatic capacity [for intervention] has to be balanced with the ideological mission.”
Landscape photo of the St. Louis Arch up against the sky.
Refugees and St. Louis
Afghan refugees are not the first to come to St. Louis.
The International Institute of St. Louis was founded in 1919 by Ruth Watkins to help refugee women from countries devastated by World War I. After its founding, the institute continued to take in refugees and immigrants from all over the world, developing resettlement programs and integration services.
The Immigration Act of 1924 capped the number of immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere at 165,000, one-fifth the amount of immigrants the United States accepted before World War I. For the next 40 years, no more large-scale immigration took place in the United States. Despite the reduced number of immigrants coming to the city, the International Institute continued its work.
During World War II, the institute responded to the internment of Japanese Americans by working with Washington University’s dean of students, Arno J. Haak, to relocate 30 Japanese Americans from internment camps. After the war, in the late 1950s, the International Institute welcomed Hungarian refugees as well.
In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Immigration Act added quotas that opened immigration up to far more non-Western countries. A decade later, after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, The International Institute of St. Louis helped resettle Vietnamese refugees who had been evacuated to the United States. Other Southeast Asian refugees came to St. Louis from Laos and Thailand in the 1970s, fearing communist oppression in their home countries. Today, many Southeast Asian immigrants live near South Grand. Since the late 1980s, Vietnamese, Thai, Laoatian and Philippine entrepreneurs have started businesses in this area, including restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries.
The US Refugee Act of 1980 resulted in an increase in the amount of refugees coming to St. Louis. One of the most prominent resettlement programs in St. Louis was the resettlement of Bosnian refugees in the late 1900s and early 2000s, after the Bosnian genocide. According to The New York Times, the number of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis reached 70,000, giving St. Louis the largest Bosnian population in the country. Many of these refugees settled in the Bevo Mill neighborhood, or “Little Bosnia,” which contains many Bosnian restaurants and mosques.
After the September 11 attacks, changes were made to the federal refugee program. As a result, the United States admitted smaller groups of refugees, but from more countries. These countries included Somalia, Nepal, the Congo, Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar. Many refugees resettled in St. Louis, with the assistance of the International Institute.
During his presidency, Barack Obama approved the increase of the refugee cap from 70,000 to 110,000 so the country could take in more Syrian refugees. A corresponding influx of refugees arrived in St. Louis during this time period.
The increased resettlement of refugees in the United States did not last. After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he restricted borders by banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries in what was called the “Muslim ban.” Over the course of his four years in office, he reduced the 110,000 refugee cap to only 15,000. As a result, the annual number of refugees resettled in St. Louis greatly decreased. According to the International Institute’s website, the total number of sponsored refugees in St. Louis dropped from 1,158 in 2016 to only about 200 in 2020.
One of the wonderful things about our country is that we are a country of immigrants.”
— Paul Hoelscher, CHS History Teacher
The Biden administration has since raised the refugee cap to 62,500. Now, as tens of thousands of Afghan refugees arrive in the United States, The International Institute prepares to resettle those arriving in St. Louis.
“I think St. Louis can be a wonderful location for refugees,” said Hoelscher. “One of the wonderful things about our country is that we are a country of immigrants. And even though there has been some nativism and anti-immigration sentiment, I think as a whole our country is pretty open and forgiving, and a good place for refugees to start their lives [again].”
Front-facing image of the International Institute of St. Louis.
The International Institute
One of the first things we can do to support refugees entering our communities is to educate ourselves about their experiences and needs. Below are some resources for educating yourself about the crisis in Afghanistan and their experience in America, as told by Afghan refugees and those familiar with their cases.
The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman- Written by a refugee who fled Afghanistan in 2012, this children’s book tells the story of a young girl living in Kabul who helps her mother deliver books and English lessons to children outside the city. Ideas such as refugee camps and bans on women’s education are introduced sensitively.
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai- Taking place in the weeks before and immediately following 9/11, this book follows a young Afghan refugee who has recently fled to the United States. As he navigates the new world he has been thrown into, he fights to find his sister, who was separated from the family en route to America. The author draws from her own experience growing up between two cultures in the first of several books about young refugees aimed towards grades 4-6.
Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son by Homeira Qadeiri- A memoir by a well-known author in Afghanistan, this book has been translated into English, and tells the author’s experiences as a young woman growing up under the Taliban’s regime. Difficult topics are covered, but the book is powerful.
The Breadwinner (11+) – An animated film based on the 2001 best selling book of the same title, The Breadwinner follows a young girl trying to support her family in Taliban-controlled Kabul.
The Kite Runner (13+)- Based on the best selling book of the same name by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, this film follows a Afghan refugee who has resettled in the United States as he reflects back on his childhood in Afghanistan.
The International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL) is an immigrant service and information center for St. Louis. Currently in its 101 year of service, the IISTL continues to build and promote a better society for immigrants, their families and the St. Louis community as a whole. They provide services for over 6,000 foreign-born people for 80 different countries. The services include but are not limited to career-path assistance, job placement, counseling and English and citizenship classes.
Initially the organization’s purpose was to aid displaced individuals that hail from war-torn European countries.
According to the 1920 census, 16% of St. Louis’s total population were foreign-born. Something had to be done to bridge the gap between foreign-born and native-born citizens, so one of the first multi-cultural events, The International May Festival, was celebrated in May 1920. The Festival of Nations, which was first held in 1934, can trace its roots back to this festival.
Since 1979, between the locations in Springfield, MO and St. Louis, the International Institute has sponsored more than 23,000 refugees including Ethiopians, Eritreans, Poles, Somalis, Syrians, Afghans, Bosnians and many more.
The Bosnian American resettlement program has been St. Louis’ most recent big project. Bosnians re-occupied neighborhoods, filled open jobs and enrolled in public schools. The IISTL played a large role in the process. Paul Costigan, IISTL’s Senior Vice President for Operations & Missouri Refugee Coordinator, explained that the Institute is in charge of running the statewide refugee program. Missouri is one of a small group of states that have nonprofits run their refugee programs, so the International Institute is tasked with coordinating refugee service agencies across the state. Though it still functions as an independent nonprofit, it is officially an affiliate of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). The State Department and USCRI work together to allocate refugee families across their network of local affiliates.
“So with advance notice of families coming, the International Institute, as part of their contract with USCRI, has to find an apartment, has to outfit that apartment with all the supplies that are on this really long list, towels and pots and pans and all that other kind of stuff,” said Costigan. “And then they have actually 90 days to provide a series of services for that family, which include health screenings, include enrolling kids in school, enrolling adults in ESL, getting parents into job readiness classes, getting them set up with a primary care physician.”
The International Institute functions by providing this holistic support even in the absence of a global refugee crisis. However, the organization is now gearing up to handle a major influx of families, similar to the wave of people fleeing Kosovo that Costigan remembers in 1999.
As Costigan explained, 60,000 parolees have been evacuated out of Afghanistan. The Department of Homeland Security Effort called Operation Allies Welcome has several operational phases, including screening prior to arrival in the U.S, COVID-19 testing and vaccination, processing at U.S. military facilities and integration support services in coordination with state/local governments and organizations such as the International Institute. Many of the arriving Afghans, including around 45 that Costigan reported arrived at the International Institute in August, worked with the United States on its mission in Afghanistan and hold Special Immigrant Visas. Others qualify for P1 and P2 visas because their careers as activists or journalists put them at risk in Afghanistan, and thousands more are humanitarian parolees including women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Those arriving as parolees will be especially in need of support.
“Their status as a parolee does not allow them to be served under refugee programs. They’re not eligible for refugee cash assistance because they’re not refugees, and they’re not eligible for refugee support services and things like that,” said Costigan. “The federal government has set up a program to allow for agencies to support those families for the first 30 to 90 days and help them pay for rent and utilities and things like that, but that is really the reason why agencies are doing big donation drives.”
Federal programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are off-limits to the majority of the people fleeing Afghanistan. Refugee cash assistance is also inaccessible, which is a monthly payment program that in Missouri is run by the Missouri Office of Refugee Administration, an intermediary organization between the federal government and local resettlement agencies.
As the only resettlement agency in St. Louis, the International Institute is scrambling to prepare for the families set to arrive between now and December. Their efforts to build out their network of services and turn to the community for volunteers and donations have ramped up in order to accommodate 300-350 people. Costigan estimated that the number will end up closer to 500, despite what the organization has told the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Costigan encourages the people of St. Louis to financially support the International Institute as they prepare to handle this crisis, but also to help by spreading the word in their communities. “There’s so much shared experience,” he said, “even though people have come from a faraway country and have fled either persecution or death threats and things like that, once they come to the United States, they want the same things as every other parent does. They want their children to be safe.”
Front-facing image of Glenridge Elementary School.
Bringing Clayton to attention on this issue was Sean Kim, graduate of CHS’s class of 2019. Kim explained in a letter to Superintendent Dr. Nisha Patel and other district personnel that he believes, “A Clayton-quality education is the greatest gift you could give to any child”.
He encouraged Clayton to take in Afghan students knowing that a Clayton education will provide them the opportunities needed to succeed.
Typically, the financial cost of education is high. However, Clayton has the support of families that can afford to donate. Figuring out the numbers, Kim clarified that Clayton spends about $247,000 per student from kindergarten through twelfth grade. “Even if we can get one kid through the door that would mean a lot to their family,” he said.
Since the beginning of the school year, several teachers at Clayton have been enrolled in a course at Washington University that teaches the history and evolution of immigration. Tabea Linhard, course instructor of Refugees in Literature and Film, spoke to the Globe about immigration policy and the lives of the people affected. “People have always migrated. People have always been displaced. People have always crossed borders. They have a right to do so and a right to [migrate] in such a way that they don’t have to risk their lives trying,” said Linhard.
[I want people to know] The danger of asking people to assimilate as a form of gratitude.”
— Amy Hamilton, CHS English Teacher
For people who live in the district, it is crucial to be aware of the situation the refugees are coming from.
“[I want people to know] The danger of asking people to assimilate as a form of gratitude. This is really unfair because people coming as refugees are coming as whole human beings who are going through a huge amount of loss”, said Amy Hamilton, an English teacher at CHS taking Linhard’s course. “I think as an educator I hope we bring more world knowledge”, she added. “I want students to engage in the same critical thinking process I’m engaging in and humbling themselves to the learning.”
Hoelscher added, “It’s giving [Clayton students] a real world opportunity to practice cultural awareness, learn new languages, and welcome people in globalism. That’s just absolutely tremendous and I hope the district bends over backwards to not just accept, but to recruit, to actively get involved.”
So what can current students and families of the Clayton community do to make these newly arrived students feel more comfortable?
Firstly, it will be helpful for parents to let their children know that a new friend may be joining their class. No matter the age, it is important that these children learn to stay open minded and to welcome the student as one of their own, even if they come from a different background or speak a different language.
For older students, volunteering for organizations or helping families you may know navigate the school system are infinitely valuable. “Having a welcoming stance to them is important. Don’t see them as someone to pity; treat them like people,” said Kim. While answering this question, Linhard said: “Listen. Listen to newly arrived students and their families, listen to their experiences, maybe try to learn a few words of a language that they may be speaking. Let them tell their own stories that now are also part of the collective ‘Clayton Story.’”
For the immigrants, the goal is not assimilation but acculturation. It is imperative that the Clayton community does not force the students into adapting Clayton culture, but instead allow them to become a part of it.
In response to the crisis in Afghanistan, the International Institute began a process to place refugee children in various schools around the St. Louis area.
A few days after the first refugees arrived, Principal Beth Scott emailed Glenridge parents to inform them about the school’s plans to welcome three new Afghan students into second, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms.
While not much can be said about the specifics of the current circumstances to protect the students’ privacy, Superintendent Dr. Patel was able to give some insight into the situation. “Our families have the support they need to be successful in our district and we will continue to provide services as needed to make sure they thrive,” Patel said. With this in mind, the future for the refugee students at Clayton seems bright.
Glenridge Welcomes Afghan Refugees
Side-facing image of Glenridge Elementary School.
At Glenridge Elementary School, spirits are high, with elementary schoolers anxiously anticipating the arrival of new members of Glenridge’s classrooms.
“I think [the kids] are excited. Anytime an elementary school receives a new student, that student is welcomed with open arms, so they’re just excited to take on the responsibility of showing the student around and teaching them about the school and introducing them to people,” said Katherine Burkard, a social worker at Captain Elementary School.
Burkard is one of many staff members involved in the district-wide effort to prepare for the arrival of three new Afghan refugee students, a match that was made to the School District of Clayton through the International Institute. Refugee students are usually matched to the St. Louis City public school district due to high space availability and a strong English Language Learners (ELL) department, so the International Institute’s decision to assign a family to the School District of Clayton is a particularly special instance for the Clayton community.
“Glenridge had the unique opportunity to partner with the International Institute, and they are the ones who find housing and jobs for any person that comes through there. They were key in getting these refugee families set up when they first arrived,” said Katherine Ingersoll, who also works as a social worker in the School District of Clayton.
The International Institute has also acted as a center for connection to bridge the participating schools with resources throughout the city.
“The International Institute and all of these different services in the greater St. Louis region have collaborated together, so there’s this really rich network of referrals for whatever that family may need at the time. Generally from a social work practice, you start by meeting their basic needs, and then you move up,” said Ingersoll.
During this preparation process, English Language Learner (ELL) specialists have had especially critical roles in ensuring necessary resources will be available and provided for the incoming families.
“Across the district, we knew that it was a possibility just with [Afghan refugee] families coming into St. Louis that we may receive some of those families,” said Burkard. “The ELL specialists have worked really closely with administrators, school counselors and the social work team to put together some general information about the Afghan cultures and a brief history lesson for students as well, so that they understand the context of these families and their lives and what they may have experienced. That information was given to teachers and then the ELL specialists also went in and did some mini lessons with different grade levels.”
Throughout this process, communication has been a key aspect in helping things move forward. The arrival of the students has seen the district staff, from the ELL department to the social work department, collaborate in order to shape a welcoming yet culturally and circumstantially aware experience. From the social work perspective, Burkard and Ingersoll have been engaging in learning from peers and experts as well as committing to personal learning in order to develop best practices for introducing the refugee students into the district.
“[The social work department] has been in communication with other schools who are [also] receiving students to see what they’re doing […] [What we’re doing in common] is partnering with the EL department, partnering with administrators, and partnering with counselors,” said Burkard. “The International Institute is the leader in housing families and getting them set up, so we’ve turned to them for guidance. We’ve done a lot of communication with [them] to make sure we understand what they’re doing and what resources they’re providing, and then know how we can [build off of] what they’re doing.”
Ingersoll has been learning from peers within her field’s network. “One of the reasons I went into social work is because I love being part of a multidisciplinary team and working with people who have different backgrounds and different knowledge than I do. And so anytime we’re welcoming a family, I get to work with not only the student and their caregivers, but also all the wonderful school staff that are part of that team,” she said. “I’m part of a professional learning network of regional social workers, so it’s been really helpful to say ‘I have a family who speaks this language and needs this resource.’ We have a big discussion board that I can just plug that question out onto, and usually within an hour, I get several responses.”
A lot of the time it’s making sure that I’ve educated myself personally, and that our team is really being aware of all the different moving pieces so that we can respond appropriately”
— Katherine Burkard, Captain Elementary School Social Worker
All of these steps are crucial not only for team preparedness, but also to develop a better understanding of the community the staff will be assisting. Burkard stands by the importance of personal learning for staff during this time.
“A lot of the time it’s making sure that I’ve educated myself personally, and that our team is really being aware of all the different moving pieces so that we can respond appropriately,” said Burkard.
Despite the complexity of the situation, Burkard and Ingersoll have found that the response of the student body at the elementary school level has been incredibly enthusiastic.
“The students at Glenridge have just been so welcoming and so friendly, and giving the [families] time to acclimate has been great. And there are student helpers in each room who are just so eager to help, which I think has been a really great way to ease the anxiety of the transition,” said Ingersoll. “Glenridge is a super welcoming place for ELL students and just students in general who have different cultural identities. Being able to see kids get to express their own cultural identity while still experiencing these different worlds can be really interesting.”
The efforts of the district have been bolstered by the rallying the Clayton community has done to gather resources for the refugees.
“The PTO and PTs in each building have spearheaded some different donation drives and fundraising efforts that they then have distributed amongst the buildings. The social work department received some of those funds. Also, in each building on campus, there is a pantry that houses clothing items, household items, personal hygiene items, and food, so that’s available to any family. In each building we have some other funding sources where we can tap into if a family is needing financial assistance,” said Burkard.
Ingersoll references the International Institute, and how the organization had to shut down donations for time to sort supplies because the influx of donations was so large. This widespread support from the broader St. Louis community is reflected in Clayton, with community members eager to lend a helping hand where needed.
“I think the benefit of being in Clayton is that we have a lot of people who are so willing to help, both from the building staff to the greater Clayton community. And I think our best practices generally include assessing what the family needs. [We’ve been] really intentional about asking what they need and then helping them ease the transition, both in the school setting and the community,” said Ingersoll. “At the start of every year, educators discuss what they did last year, what worked and what didn’t work. And because the world was so frazzled with COVID, it was nice to be able to regroup and recommit to a quality education and a dynamic environment with a really focused staff who really care for the students that we have.”
As Glenridge teachers, district staff, and the Clayton community members work together, we hope to give the refugees a warm introduction to their new home.
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