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A New Kansas City Public School Offers Refugee Students Hope For A ‘Soft Landing’

Brendan Thiry works with his 4th grade students at the KCPS International Welcome Center on Friday, Sept. 17.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Dr. Brendon Thiry works with second and third grade students at the KCPS International Welcome Center.

Local resettlement agencies expect hundreds of refugees to arrive in the next few months. Engoma Fataki, once a refugee himself, is an interpreter who will help students from a dozen different countries when they attend the Global Academy at the International Welcome Center.

Six-year-old Makai Majambere was born in a Zambian refugee camp and arrived in Kansas City in June. She had attended school intermittently, but excelled enough to land in the first grade when she started at the Global Academy in early September.

Her mother, Debora Muhirwa, 27, speaking through an interpreter, said she’s already seen her daughter’s confidence blossom.

“When we got here everything was new,” Muhirwa said. ”Makai is smart, but she was shy and didn’t want to talk because she knew little English.”

Debora Muhirwa and her daughter, 1st grader Mikai Majambere, at their home in northeast Kansas City, Mo.
Laura Ziegler
Debora Muhirwa and her daughter, first-grader Mikai Majambere, at their home in northeast Kansas City.

Sitting on the sofa in the sparse living room where Muhirwa lives with her daughter and brother, Makai clings to her mother as a television broadcasts in the language of their native Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When asked to share something she’s learned at school, Makai releases her mother, beams and recites the alphabet.

Expecting more refugees

The Biden administration announced this week it would raise the ceiling on the number of refugees the U.S. will welcome, making good on a campaign promise to reverse the historically low numbers during President Trump's administration.

In addition, Kansas City has agreed to accept as many as 1,200 Afghans evacuated as U.S. troops withdrew this summer.

Two of the resettlement agencies in the area, Jewish Vocational Services and Della Lamb, say they expect a wave of several hundred new refugees between now and December. The Global Academy partners with the two agencies, anticipates dozens of new students and has teachers on stand-by to accommodate them.

A new school in an old building

The Global Academy is housed in the Woodland Early Learning Center, which was built in the early 20th century and is located on Kansas City's east side. The building has the warm feel of an old school, light spilling on to dark wood molding through massive windows, walls painted in earthy burnt orange and grey.

Superintendent Mark Bedell said the new International Welcome Center is designed to help young students who either haven’t been in school at all, or whose education has been interrupted.

“There is anxiety, fear of the unknown,” Bedell said in an interview at the school's official opening on Sept. 17. “We recognize that those other factors often become impediments to our kids being able to achieve their full academic goals.”

Instructors are certified in English as a Second Language (ESL) as well as in early education and the subjects they teach. Most are bilingual.

There are also social workers, counselors and interpreters on site to help families navigate the requirements of their new lives.

Engoma Fataki stands next to one of several multilingual signs that adorn the halls of KCPS International Welcome Center. Fataki came to KC as a high schooler after 17 year in refugee camps and is now working at the new school to help it get ready.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Engoma Fataki stands next to one of several multilingual signs that adorn the halls of the KCPS International Welcome Center. Fataki came to Kansas City after 17 years in refugee camps, and he is now working at the new school to help it prepare for more refugees.

Engoma Fataki arrived in the U.S. after 17 years in refugee camps in Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia and started classes right away in the Kansas City Public School system at East High.

He said it was his childhood dream to one day walk the halls of an American high school, but with very little schooling and understanding of English, the experience was overwhelming.

“I would be in a group of people where I did not feel comfortable speaking because I was scared they would laugh at me,” he said. “Trying to fit into a new culture was harder than I could have anticipated.”

The official opening

When the school officially opened, Superintendent Bedell and Fataki joined teachers and staff of the Global Academy, school board members and community partners at the ribbon cutting at the building’s entrance. Behind them hung a long banner with the words “Enroll Here” in English, Spanish, Swahili and French, just a few of the dozen or so languages the school anticipates it will eventually accommodate.

Allyson Hile, Director of Language Services and Cultural Equity for KCPS, has worked in the district for more than 20 years. She held back tears as she talked about the long journey to this moment.

“It’s an invitation, a promise and it’s a 60-square ft. welcome mat to refugees and immigrant families coming into our city and schools,” she told an applauding crowd. “And we’re going to work alongside them as they write their American stories.”

With that, she invited school officials and community members to cut the ceremonial ribbon.

Holding on to one end of that ribbon was principal Ryan Rumpf, who said he’s spent his career in the field of language development and leading this new school is a dream job. He speaks English, Spanish and French, and is studying Swahili to better communicate with many of his new students.

“The goal (of the Global Academy) is to give the kids a soft landing when they arrive in the U.S.,” he said. “To teach them what school and life is like in Kansas City, and then hopefully get them integrated back into their neighborhood school.”

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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