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Award-Winning Educators Offer Simple Strategies for Teachers to Help Afghan Refugees Thrive in Classrooms and Communities

August 26, 2021

As Afghan families arrive in the U.S., schools across the country will be welcoming refugee children from Afghanistan to their first American classrooms. In Helping Refugee Students Thrive: Best Practices from Milken Educators, three Milken Educator Award-winning teachers offer actionable tips honed by experience to help refugee students and families thrive. 

Educators available for interviews include:

Chris Bessonette builds compassion in his classroom community by reminding the whole class that welcoming new students is a shared responsibility. He often asks an outgoing and friendly student to be the newcomer’s special buddy for a while. "These kids are learning so much," Chris says. "They're figuring out how school works, how friends treat each other, a new language, hundreds of unexplained social rules embedded within the culture of their new community. Having a special friend helps them realize they're not alone." 

Google Translate offers an immediate communication channel that involves the entire class. Not only can it help new students make themselves understood, but it gives English speakers the chance to speak the newcomers' language, too. "It's critically important to make the new student smile," says Robert O'Donnell, who projects Google Translate on the screen for the entire class. "What's more welcoming than seeing their teacher and new friends attempting to speak their language? It puts everyone at ease and establishes common ground as everyone struggles to achieve mutual understanding, in any way possible." 

In addition to his classroom work at a school where half the students come from outside the U.S., Andrew coaches soccer, with an all-immigrant team that includes kids from Thailand, Burma, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan. Many of these children "have baggage and trauma that they don’t even realize," says Andrew. "I have had the nicest kids blow up out of nowhere. In decompressing conversations after the outburst, I discovered that there had been a triggering event bringing memories of past (but recent) trauma…. If you’re teaching that student, just have patience. Listen. More likely than not, they have seen something so traumatizing, so unimaginable that they will need all the support they can get."

For questions or interviews, please contact Erika Kerekes at the Milken Family Foundation, or 310-490-5188. 

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. 

Contact: Erika Kerekes