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May 08, 2023

Meet three American teachers uplifting refugee students

There are many ways to welcome refugees in your community: You can help them navigate new systems and surroundings, practice new languages with them or just be a smiling, friendly face as they walk down the street.

One impactful way Americans are showing their support for refugees is through teaching! Resettled refugee students across the United States face unique challenges when starting school in a new country with a different culture and language. They need academic support as well as mentors, motivators, protectors and champions. Teachers like Pam, Damien and Stacie see amazing potential in their refugee students and are working hard to give them the tools they need to succeed.

Pam Atkins

Halima and her teacher Pam Atkins

It was in high school that Halima first began to embrace her identity as a refugee and a hijab-wearing Muslim. Around that same time, she met an amazing mentor who helped her come out of her shell and pushed her to be her best self, Pam Atkins, an English teacher and AVID program administrator — a college preparatory program for high-achieving students like Halima.

Pam is no stranger to refugee students. “At the time [Halima was my student] our high school was serving all incoming refugees to the Boise area,” Pam proudly explains. She recalls at one point there were more than 40 different nationalities represented at the school.

With Pam’s support, Halima began building skills and acquiring experiences that would fuel her future advocacy work. As a student, she participated on a council in the Mayor’s office and was involved in other community action groups. According to Pam, Halima’s “superpower [is] being able to plug into what is happening right now but also always having this vision for herself out ahead.”

Damien Johnson

Haya and Ghena and their teacher Damien Johnson

Damien Johnson, an English teacher at West Springfield High School in Massachusetts, encourages all of his students to apply themselves and reach their full potential. Twin sisters and former refugees Haya and Ghena are just a couple of his lucky pupils.

Being teenagers, especially when you come from another country, can be intimidating and it can be difficult to make your voice heard. But when an opportunity to share their family’s refugee story presented itself, Haya and Ghena not only drew support from their family, they found support at school from their encouraging teacher, Mr. Johnson.

"I do have empathy for these kids who are coming from other countries and I thought, somebody needs to give these kids a platform to tell their story," shares Damien.

Damien has been a great influence on the sisters and their refugee and immigrant peers, always pushing them to do bigger and better things. “I'm really proud of the work that Ghena and Haya have done...I have really high expectations for them moving forward," he proclaims.

Stacie Merrin

Teacher Stacie Merrin

Before Stacie Merrin began leading a classroom of high school students, she was Officer Merrin, with the Phoenix Police Department. It wasn’t until she retired from the Police Department that she finally had the opportunity to pursue another passion of hers — teaching.

Today she is an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for students who have recently arrived in the United States. "I teach first-year refugee students…I get to watch that first year of growth and it is amazing,” Stacie shares proudly.

“The kids who’ve come from refugee situations have taught me humility,” she continues. “They are so happy to be in school. I’m constantly amazed by how hard they work and how much they will not give up.”

And despite the struggles that her students face, Stacie is optimistic for their futures. “I know these kids are going to be successful and I just think ‘wow, I can't wait to see where they go in life’."

How to help…

Offering up your skills and knowledge is a great way to welcome refugees in your community. Another powerful way you can help is by becoming a USA for UNHCR monthly donor. When you make a donation to USA for UNHCR, you help refugees in the United States and around the world access the tools and resources they need to thrive.