Smiling in the same language

Pupils give refugees in Whitehall chance to make American friends

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Jinan Hassan, a refugee from Iraq living in the Prospect Park Apartments in Whitehall, had the chance Monday to chat and play word games with eighth-grade pupils from the Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside.

For Ms. Hassan, the interaction gave her a chance to "learn to go faster with the American language," she said with a big smile.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Jinan Hassan with her daughter, Malik Yasin, 3, who's holding the flower pots she painted with visiting Winchester Thurston School students, who met Monday with refugee families in the Prospect Park apartment complex in Whitehall.
Click photo for larger image.

She was one of eight women who met with groups of the Winchester Thurston teens Monday while their preschool-age children played and decorated flower pots along with other pupils.

About 40 pupils from Winchester Thurston came to meet and interact with refugee families who come from Burma, Turkey, Iraq and Vietnam. The families are placed at Prospect Park by Catholic Charities but are supported by a number of agencies, including the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, which provides English as a Second Language classes, and South Hills Interfaith Ministries, which operates a preschool at the complex.

The students visited the refugee community as part of its annual service project, which is designed to reach out to the world community, said Laurie Heinricher, dean of middle school pupils at Winchester Thurston. She's hoping to continue the relationship between the pupils and refugees next school year.

Pittsburgh Cares, which operates a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities in the area, worked with Winchester Thurston and Kristen Klos, an AmeriCorps volunteer with the literacy council, to bring the pupils to the refugees.

The pupils got a chance to learn about the refugee experience, including the lives the families left behind and the ones they are trying to build in America.

The refugees got a chance practice their language skills and learn more about the lives of American pupils and their families.

The event gave the adult and child refugees an opportunity to use the English language skills in a way that is "different from their formal lessons," Ms. Klos said.

During their visit Monday, all of the pupils rotated through three stations meeting with and playing a Bingo word game with adult refugees, painting flower pots and playing with preschoolers from the refugee community and participating in a panel discussion about the refugee experience.

At lunchtime, the pupils ate the boxed lunches they brought along, but they also tasted dishes the refugee mothers prepared from their homelands.

Winchester pupil Max Stofman, 14, of Squirrel Hill, said his preschool buddy, who was about 2 years old, didn't speak any English, but the pair had no trouble communicating while decorating their flower pot.

"We used motions to show what we meant and gave each other a high five when we were done," he said.

The panel discussion included representatives from the literacy council, SHIM, Catholic Charities and Jewish Family and Child Services.

During one of the discussions, Trish Lawrence, a SHIM employee who teaches preschool for the refugee children, explained how she has to reassure the children there will always be enough food for all of them at snack time. Many of the children lived in refugee camps where they often went without food.

"We explain to them that they don't have to hoard or hide their food. They will get it every day," Ms. Lawrence said.

Similarly, Josh Kivuva, a literacy council ESL teacher, said he's had to work on the same issue. He said the Somali refugees in the Pittsburgh schools always wanted to be first in the cafeteria line because in a refugee camp "the first in line is guaranteed to eat." Mr. Kivuva works with Pittsburgh Public Schools to help to assimilate Somali Bantu refugees.

"Having lived that way all of your life, it's hard to change," he said.

But he worked with the cafeteria staff and the refugee children to show them that even after the last person goes through the line, there is still food left over.

"We let them know there is enough for everyone. Now, after months of this, they understand," he said.

He asked the Winchester pupils to imagine life as a refugee.

"Imagine how your life would be if at home, there is not enough food and no money and there is fighting outside and you are not allowed to work."

The room fell silent.

The discussion leaders then told the pupils how they can help the refugees by conducting drives for goods that they need, such as diapers and other paper products.

The presentation moved Winchester pupil Madalyn Levy, 14, to action. She vowed to start a drive for diapers and other paper products as soon as she got back to school.

"I'm going to talk about it on the announcements and make posters and get the word out," Madalyn said.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at or 412-851-1866.


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