‘They had felt so alone and isolated’: Teen launches tutoring service for refugee children
Riyah Patel poses with her mother, Manisha. (Courtesy of Manisha Patel)
Riyah Patel knows what it’s like to be different, and it’s driven her, at just 15, to create her own nonprofit organization dedicated to tutoring refugee children in New Hampshire.
She realized refugee students were getting left behind after struggling herself to navigate a new school and online learning during the pandemic.
“I realized just how hard it was to be in an environment where you felt so isolated,” she said.
Starting school at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy was supposed to be less isolating for Riyah, who had been looking for a more diverse classroom for years. Being the only student of color in her classes in Concord had prompted a switch to a school in Manchester. And while the student body at Phillips Exeter was more diverse, the pandemic made it difficult to connect with peers and teachers. Riyah struggled to ask for help; even at a resource-rich institution, she said the lack of support was overwhelming. She brought her concerns to her mom, Manisha, who told her daughter how she too had struggled in school as a recent immigrant from India whose parents were unfamiliar with the system. The added challenge of the pandemic would have made it unimaginable. The conversation led Riyah to start New American Scholars.
New Hampshire is becoming more diverse, and no segment of the population is diversifying as quickly as its child population, according to 2020 census data. Minority kids make up 20 percent of the population under 18. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for newcomers who often face linguistic and cultural barriers upon arriving in a state that remains among the whitest in the nation.
Riyah started thinking about the pandemic’s impact on refugee children in New Hampshire, people who had come to the area through a resettlement process, not by a choice of their own. “They’re fleeing conflict. They have seen the worst of humanity. They have come fleeing war, famine, persecution, and they’re still only children,” said Riyah, who reached out to refugee resettlement organizations and offered to start tutoring.
Overcomers Refugee Services is one nonprofit that helped connect her with local refugee students. In addition to their schoolwork, refugee children often have the added responsibility of interpreting for parents who don’t speak English and working to help financially support the family, said Executive Director Clement Kigugu.
Kigugu is also a pastor, and he founded the nonprofit after many people came to Sunday services asking for help with applications or interpretation. He came to the United States in 2006 from Rwanda, where he had faced political persecution and was granted asylum. His experience resettling in New Hampshire informs his work with other new arrivals facing language barriers and cultural differences. He said that having a tutor can help refugee students get caught up in school, especially when there’s a mismatch between their educational background and their placement in the United States.
Last summer, Riyah tutored 10 students who came from Nepal, Rwanda, Bhutan, and Congo. They met at the Concord Public Library for one-on-one and small group sessions from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Riyah realized the students lacked confidence and were nervous about speaking English or asking questions when they didn’t understand something. And she was concerned to learn that students were placed into courses at school based on their age not prior coursework. One was put into a geometry course but had never taken algebra.
“They were just being set up for failure,” Riyah said. “It was really heartbreaking.”
Through their sessions, she saw that slowly begin to change. By the end of the summer, the kids were engaged and asking questions.
“They were eager to learn this whole time, they just didn’t know how to ask for it. They had felt so alone and isolated for such a long time. They’re very bright kids; they’re incredibly talented. It’s just that our system had left them behind,” she said.
Riyah is now recruiting other tutors and more students to expand New American Scholars. She plans to offer online tutoring through the school year and return to in-person sessions next summer.
Integrating into school isn’t the only challenge new arrivals face in New Hampshire. The Legislature has taken up several bills addressing immigration this session, some drawing concern from immigrant advocates, like House Bill 1266, which would ban local police from restricting or discouraging cooperation with federal agencies, such as ICE. The ACLU opposed this bill that it said would undermine community trust and harm public safety.
The New Hampshire Immigrant Rights Network said bills like HB 1266 have fanned fear and anxiety about the presence of immigrants in communities and “legislation such as HB 1266 contributes to the rise in hate and injustice.” And they said this kind of legislation could increase racial and ethnic profiling as well as animosity and distrust of people perceived to be immigrants. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Tony Piemonte, a Sandown Republican, who told lawmakers the legislation is meant to ensure that New Hampshire adheres to all federal immigration laws. Piemonte sees undocumented illegal immigration as “jeopardizing our safety and draining resources” that should go to legal immigrants.
But those resources aren’t readily available – even to those who are in the country with legal status. Just accessing health care can be a challenge in New Hampshire, one of only 17 states that require legal immigrants to wait five years until they can qualify for benefits, including Medicaid. A bill that would have eliminated that waiting period failed to gain the approval of the Republican majority in the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee.
When Manisha Patel immigrated to the United States at 5 years old, she didn’t speak a word of English. She was lonely after her parents left Kavitha, a rural village in northwestern India where everyone was involved in raising the children. “In India, you’re raised by a village,” she said. “I was always surrounded by kids and people, laughter, and a lot of play.” At school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she knew she was different. “As a kid, you’re not really aware of your surroundings other than the fact that nobody looks like you and nobody speaks your language. So that was hard,” she said.
She learned English and made friends, but those friends didn’t understand her culture or traditions. They didn’t identify with her. And she had a persistent internal conflict between both wanting to adapt to Western culture while meeting Indian cultural expectations. When she started a family of her own and moved to New Hampshire, she thought her daughter’s experience would be different. When Riyah was excluded from a friend’s pool party in third grade, she asked the classmate why. The girl said she wasn’t invited because she would make the water dirty.
For Riyah, too, being the only person of color was isolating. “She just didn’t have anyone that she felt close to culturally, I guess,” Manisha Patel said.
That’s fueled Riyah in her new mission: to make New Hampshire diverse. It’s not an easy task, with immigrant and refugee families leaving the state for a cheaper cost of living elsewhere, or to be closer to family and their community. Many of the Bhutanese refugees who arrived in New Hampshire have since left for Pennsylvania or Ohio, according to Kigugu.
Riyah hopes that by helping the kids succeed in school and feel connected to the community here, she can change that.
Manisha Patel said her daughter is determined. “She’s just so hell-bent on, ‘no one should have to grow up like me and no one should have to grow up like these refugee kids,’” she said. For that reason, she doesn’t see her daughter leaving New Hampshire anytime soon.
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