The journey a refugee takes is, at best, challenging: leaving home and loved ones behind, surviving war or political turmoil, living in a refugee camp for an uncertain period of time, and eventually ending up in an unfamiliar place and having to learn an entirely new language and culture.
It must be impossibly hard when you are a child with no family.
Every year, unaccompanied refugee children come to the U.S. to find a new life and a new family. They have either lost their parents to war, politics, or disease, or have been separated from their families. Some, like the “lost boys” of Sudan, have endured long treks to safety. They have all spent time in refugee camps, many not knowing if their parents are alive and with little means to communicate back home.
Surprisingly, perhaps, many of these kids are secure and successful in their new lives.
“The kids we work with are incredibly resilient and gracious. They want to be part of a family and they want to go to school,” says Molly Daggett, program manager for Refugee and Immigrant Children’s program of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, the Seattle area agency that resettles unaccompanied refugee minors with foster families. “Our kids overwhelmingly graduate from high school, and many go on to college. They do incredibly well.”
Relief workers first became aware of child refugees traveling on their own in the late 1970’s, when waves of displaced Vietnamese flooded into refugee camps in Southeast Asia. The United Nations created a special designation for these minors, resettling them with foster families in third countries.
LCSNW began placing Vietnamese and later Cambodian and Laotian children, finding foster families and training them for the challenges of caring for refugee youth. Seattle and Tacoma have since been home to hundreds of refugee children, coming from countries as varied as Haiti, Cuba, Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Most are older teens when they arrive, but they usually had strong family connection and upbringing before they were displaced.
“For being refugees, most of these kids are different,” says Christy Hedman, who fostered 2 boys from Sudan. “They became refugees at 5, or 6, or 7. They had been raised by their mothers, and despite the horrors they went through, had a strong early raising and good relationships.”
Hedman’s boys were 17 when they arrived in 2000, along with 28 other minors from Sudan. They had both left their homes when they were 5 or 6, and had spent the intervening years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. When they arrived in Seattle, “they were really skinny,” Hedman says. “In the camps they were only getting about 1,000 calories a day.”
The years they spent with her were like “18 years of a childhood compressed into three.” She had to show them how to climb stairs and to turn on a light switch. One of them thought that, when they were driving, the car was signaling to her which way to turn. They were curious about everything: “They were like 3 or 4 year-olds, when you can’t keep them out from under your feet,” she said.
But when it came to school they were serious and committed. They adapted quickly because they already spoke English, having learned in the Kenyan refugee camp. Hedman thinks the years spent in camps made them hungry for a chance at a good education.
“They hit the ground running when they got here,” she says. “They knew it was a great opportunity and wanted to take advantage of it.”
“The Sudanese kids had an expression,” says Molly Daggett, “‘Education is my mother and father.’ They had lost their parents, so education was going to be what would guide them.”
In the past year, LCS has resettled a number of Burmese children who were living as refugees in Malaysia. Daggett anticipates more Burmese arrivals, and possibly Bhutanese refugees from Nepal. But she stresses that they never know where the next arrivals may come from.
“They are survivors, they are the kids who had the resiliency, and the ability to engage adults and get the help,” says Daggett. “It is quite amazing. I still marvel at it.”
For more information about the program, or about becoming a foster family, visit www.refugeechildren.net.