Voices of Youth: Washtenaw County's immigrant youth seek sense of community and other supports

Young immigrants in Washtenaw County have a variety of unique needs, ranging from academic support to help with documentation, but one of the things they yearn for most is to spend time with others like themselves. 
This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate staffer Sarah Rigg examines the needs of our community's young immigrants – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

Young immigrants in Washtenaw County have a variety of unique needs, ranging from academic support to help with documentation, but one of the things they yearn for most is to spend time with others like themselves. 

Diana Bernal works with Latinx youth in Ypsilanti Community Schools in a position funded through local nonprofit Buenos Vecinos ("Good Neighbors" in English). She provides both practical homework help and a listening ear, while also helping the youth build a support network with one another. She was once a new Latinx student at Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS) and says that while she loved her white friends, she longed for the company of others who shared a love of the same foods and other important parts of her culture.

Years later, Latinx students are facing some of the same issues.

YCHS sophomore Gadiel Rodriguez, 17, says that when he was coming to the U.S. from El Salvador, he experienced some culture shock about things as simple as school rules and schedules.
Gadiel Rodriguez.
"Everything is just different," he says.

Ashley M. (who did not want to share her last name), a 14-year-old freshman at YCHS, says she was looking forward to a better life in the U.S. after emigrating from Honduras. While the public schools provided academic and English learning help, other Latinx students were her rock.
Ashley M.
"At first, I was really shy and didn't want to talk to my teachers. So that was the key to why I didn't learn English very fast," she says. But her Latinx peers spoke to her mainly in English, forcing her to learn new vocabulary and ask them to translate when she didn't understand.

YCHS Latinx students have some support from peers through the program Jóvenes Tejedores de Sociedad 3D ("Young Weavers of Society 3D" in English, abbreviated JTS). The Buenos Vecinos-organized program gives them a chance to spend time with others who can relate to their situation, but that's not available for many other immigrant youth in Washtenaw County.

Thylicia Babumba, 14, is a ninth-grader at Huron High School in Ann Arbor. Her family emigrated from Uganda to the U.S. when she was in grade school. 

She says it can be difficult to get weird looks from your peers when you share experiences from your home country or culture, leading to feeling "left out."

"For example, people were always surprised that I was not starving in Africa, that I had a pretty good childhood, and most of my favorite memories come from there," Babumba says.

She says her cousin would like to create an African Student Union at Huron High, "where a lot of African kids can come in and have a sense of community and familiarity." Many young immigrants in Washtenaw County share her desire for after-school clubs or other opportunities to connect with fellow students who have a similar background. Babumba says adult immigrants "can connect easier," while teens may have difficulty finding "someone who relates to your experience or culture."

Other challenges

In addition to seeking a sense of community, young local immigrants express desires for a variety of supportive services. Marianna Moynihan, community resource coordinator with Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, says their work addresses three main areas of concern to their young clients.

"The general way I tend to explain the challenges that newcomer youth face around education are logistic, language access, and cultural challenges," they say.

Logistics could include navigating the school enrollment process, which is heavy on paperwork and documentation. 

"We want youth in our community to have easy access to school," Moynihan says. "We want the enrollment process to be welcoming, to start that invitation that this youth belongs in this school."

Schools commonly ask students for birth certificates, immunization records, and proof of residency, like their family's water bills.

Moynihan notes that birth certificates can look quite different in another country, for instance. School staff might unknowingly create a barrier to the child's education by asking for documentation that looks "more traditional."

A more welcoming experience would include introducing the family to an enrollment specialist at the school who can figure out "what documentation the family has that would fit the school's parameters," Moynihan says.

Documentation is a common challenge for immigrant youth in many situations. They may have difficulty getting a driver's license, taking a standardized college entrance exam, or applying for college.

"I had the opportunity to take the SAT, but I didn't know what to do," says Grace Mazama, a YCHS student whose family emigrated here several years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I knew there was scholarship money and financial aid, but I didn't know anything about that."

She says there should be special clubs for immigrants to learn practicalities like how to get into college, what scholarships are available, how to take the SAT, how to get a driver's license, how to apply for a job, and more.

Making a Michigan driver's license easier to attain is the goal of a movement called Drive Michigan Forward, composed of local immigrants and organizations like MIRC.

"The ability to drive legally would be really helpful to immigrant families," Moynihan says. "It's about safety and access." 

Babumba says that, while immigrant youth do need help adjusting to a new school and a new culture, that doesn't mean they want to leave their traditions behind.

"Yes, we might have cultural differences that make us stand out, but don't try to assimilate us," Babumba says. "Try to help and encourage us to find our people, because it's scary moving to a whole different country with no one that seems to be like you or speak like you. Having spaces where you're able to connect with other immigrant kids … eases the feeling of loneliness."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 
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