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Behind the Scenes: Trina's Video Journal

Sometimes a teacher’s work is emotional. In this short video, Trina Harlow, book editor and film co-director, shares part of her personal video journal as three days of interviewing newcomer students wrapped up (additional video not in the documentary film):


So I'm in the car headed to Texas now and I've spent two days in Wichita with Rusty Earl, the videographer from the College of Education and we're working on a documentary that we are producing about the experiences that refugee children – also asylum seekers, newcomers, recent immigrants – the experience they have in our schools. But we're specifically focusing in on refugees and asylum seekers. It's been an amazing two days. It's hard to explain the emotions I feel because the last two days I've really been privileged and honored to spend time with children and parents that have really had their worlds turned upside down. They've left Congo, Tanzania, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Syria, Mexico – they've left all these various countries – Bhutan, and they have come to Wichita, Kansas in the middle of the United States.

Many of them came from areas where it was warm where they lived and now they're living somewhere where there's snow and ice and a lot of feelings After interviewing all of these students – I was able to directly interview three high school students, four middle school students and four elementary school students. Rusty Earl, the videographer and the director of this documentary we're doing – I'm so thrilled that I get to work with him on it – he set these interviews up but it was an overwhelming experience for me. I got an opportunity I think to do what I do best and that is to really understand people and where they come from and what they've been through.

I'm left with some overwhelming thoughts and those thoughts are that every single one of the kids that I interviewed said that what they liked best about school and Wichita was they didn't get beat and they didn't get beat by the teachers at school. When we asked about that, one little boy – he was a 6th grader – and as a 3rd grader he got beat at school because he didn't (in Tanzania) – he didn't have money for something he was supposed to pay for and so he got beat. The students tell about getting kicked if they don't know the answers to things and every single one of these students told about physical punishment and the schools they came from and this was just so surprising to me and these children were scared the first week at their new school – all of them. But they made friends. That seemed to be what helped them get through it – and teachers that help them learn.

Another thing I picked up on from these students is that they love having the opportunity to learn and they love getting to stay at the same school and not run here and run there and hide here and hide there and love being able to be at the same school. They like it that they have to stay at school and that no one can come get them out of school, that only their parents can come sign them out. All of them credited their moms the moms are the strength for a lot of these families and all of these children that we interviewed – every single one of them credited their moms for being where their strength comes from. I'm really almost kind of mentally drained because there's so much going through my mind.

The other thing that I was impressed by were the parents and the evening ESL group and Curtis Middle School that lets parents come to school during the school day. Parents have English classes. Parents are at school during the same hours the kids are, in the same building. It's amazing! The principal at Curtis Middle School said she teaches her students that it's about destiny, not demography, and she took this position knowing that she was taking a position at the lowest performing school in the state of Kansas and she turned it around in less than two years. She said the way she did that was she was a team with her faculty, that that no administrator can run a school by themselves and that the best administrators know that a hundred percent of their faculty have to be included in their decisions and leadership, and boy I respect her for that. The principal today just wowed me.

This woman is dedicating her life to creating a community at Curtis Middle School, a school of two thousand students – 900 of them are newcomers from other countries. A lot of those are designated refugees so this school was full of positive images – hundreds positive images all over the walls – and the doors were decorated for colleges and universities and it was just a place you felt good. It was joyous and happy and that's exactly what the principal wants. She wants it to be how the school feels. We asked the students if there was something their teachers could do better to help them. The high school students all said the same thing – all of them without any hesitation said they just need their teachers to talk slower so they understand them better. The middle school students and the elementary school students just smiled – these starry-eyed precious beautiful smiles – and said no. And I talked to them about that and they couldn't think of one thing their teachers needed to do better. They talked about their grandparents that they left in Syria, and one of the little boys talked about wanting to be a scientist when he grew up, and going to the treasure box at school in the fourth grade and getting a plastic compass out and taking it home and turning it, putting a light battery on it, turning it into a nightlight and a working compass and giving it to his sister. And he wants to build a robot and I thought of Freddy Levar Dean that came to K-State a couple years ago.

I just spent two days with what I consider to be the best of humanity, the best of humanity, and the interesting thing is a lot of these kids came out of places where they saw the worst of humanity and I'm just really thankful today that I'm a teacher. I'm really thankful for the life I've had here in the United States. I'm sad that not everyone gets to have that kind of life. I'm sad that every kid didn't grow up the way I did in a nice, peaceful, calm little town in western Kansas. But I'm really thankful that I am a teacher and I'm thankful that I got to spend time with these brilliant students yesterday and today. I just can't wait to see what they do with their lives. A couple of them want to be doctors. One of them wants to be a beautician. One of them wants to be a scientist. One of them wants to be a computer technician. They were amazing and I'm proud to be an educator and I'm proud that I get to work with wonderful students like this.

Journey to Refuge ebook cover

Download the eBook at New Prairie Press

Published April 2019

Recommended Citation: Harlow, Trina D., "Journey to Refuge: Understanding Refugees, Exploring Trauma, and Best Practices for Newcomers and Schools" (2019). NPP eBooks. 26. https://newprairiepress.org/ebooks/26

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

See the full Refuge in the Heartland documentary

For more information about the eBook or film, please contact Dr. Trina Harlow, Book Editor and Film Co-Director, at drtrinaharlow@gmail.com.