There’s a new lesson plan at Concord High and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Anna-Marie DiPasquale, the school’s social worker, started a new project this past fall called “Travel around the World.” The project allows Ms. DiPasquale to visit different classrooms with small groups of refugee students sharing their cultures and traditions firsthand.
Presentations have included tastings of Carrot Halwa, a surprisingly sweet Pakistani dessert, the story of struggle behind the Burundi flag, and language lessons in Lingala.
Learning different languages is something that Rene Ndutiye has had to master throughout her childhood. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, her parents fled war to Rwanda when she was eight. For the next four years, Rwanda was home. Then her house was intentionally set on fire with some of the family inside. Neighbors helped everyone escape, but her parents were badly burned. After that, they moved to Uganda. And in 2012, they were resettled in Concord, New Hampshire. Rene, now fourteen, was fluent in trauma and three languages.
Today, in her fourth language, she stands in front of twenty students talking all about Rwanda. She tells classmates how some of the school girls have to shave their heads, she shares music, and talks about the ultimate equalizer: food.
“We have to buy a fresh chicken, like actually a fresh one,” Rene says. “You have to kill it, and cook it.”
“Rene is an expert in everything that relates to her culture,” says Ms. DiPasquale. “We have so many students that are experts in their experience so why not share that expertise in the classroom.”
Ms. DiPasquale says her role working with the refugee kids is to "give voice to their needs." It’s something she’s been addressing since she started at the high school six years ago.
“First couple months I was here, I went into the social studies classrooms and we talked about how do we move past stereotypes,” Ms. DiPasquale said. “We get to know each other. We share each other’s stories”.
That’s the idea behind her social club, “Be the Change,” which brings refugee students and American students together to learn from each other. The club also speaks to Concord’s transformation over the last twenty years as a resettlement site. In 1995, Concord schools were 97% white. Today, almost 20% of the district’s students are non-white. While taking in refugees has always been contentious, a new tone was struck this past election season.
“I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria, that are coming here as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back,” exclaimed now President-elect Trump at a rally last year in Keene. “They’re going back!”
In the ten days following Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported close to nine hundred hate crimes - most coming in K-12 Schools, Colleges and Universities. With calls for closed borders and a Muslim registry, there are some students in the majority speaking up - including Juliet Greenwood, a senior at the high school.
“Instead of seeing Sana, one of our Muslim students, wearing her hijab and just making assumptions,” says Juliet, “when you actually learn about her culture and her religion it’s actually a lot different than the media and politics make it out to be.”
Growing up in Concord, Juliet says she wasn’t exposed to much diversity. As a seventh grader, she was invited to one of Ms. DiPasquale’s multicultural events, and for the first time found herself in the minority.
“Nobody spoke any English but I was trying really hard to entertain people,” Juliet recalls. “That’s when Ms. D said I’d be a great social worker and that was our first interaction.”
A few years later, as a sophomore, she experienced something in her lunch room that took diversity from interesting, to important.
“I mean it’s noticeable that the white students sit at these tables, Nepali students sit at tables and then the more African students sit at [different] tables,” says Juliet. “There were some pretty derogatory comments made from people in my friend group and I kind of separated myself.”
She says she confronted her friends and their language. Now she’s one of the leaders of the “Be the Change" club.
“My role,” says Juliet, “is really helping the enormous white community at this school use me as an example and to get the international students to see me as an accepting white student and not as one of the many that aren’t as accepting.”
Upon entering the school, it was a matter of minutes before I encountered some of those "not as accepting" kids. In an empty hallway, a group of white boys at an open locker whistled and made monkey noises at Ms. DiPasquale’s Afro-Caribbean American intern, Kailin and myself. Later, during the presentations, in front of multiple teachers and a reporter, a couple of white teen boys in baseball hats mocked the club and their students standing only feet away. Ms. DiPasquale insisted that this was not normal.
“I will say that for the most part Concord high school is a super welcoming place and today’s an anomaly,” Ms. DiPasquale said. “It’s just today was an anomaly and I think education is the key to everything.”
Combating racism isn’t the toughest thing Rene’s ever faced. But when refugee students first arrive, struggle is common.
“I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know who to call, I had no one to turn to,” Rene says. “I used to go home and feel so bad and I would tell my parents, I’m not going back to school. And they’re like you’ve got to.”
“There are a lot of tears in my office,” says Ms. DiPasquale. “I need to give them a space to make sure that they’re going to be OK. They will get the language. That people are going to love them and welcome them here. And this is their school.”
While learning the language is a crucial point of entry, Ms. DiPasquale says that there’s also language that needs to be unlearned.
“That term, refugee,” Ms. Dipasquale says, “language is powerful, right? And you’re not refugees anymore you’re here.”
“When you call some people yes, it’ll be not cool to be called like that but otherwise hey,” Rene says, “we’re used to it we’ve heard it over and over again. It’s like a song in our ears.”
Ms. DiPasquales’s current tour through the school has served almost as a PSA that the students from the 66 different countries, speaking 44 different languages are no longer refugees. This is their home. They’re New Americans.