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La Jolla public schools to welcome Afghan refugee students

Torrey Pines Elementary is one La Jolla public school welcoming refugee students from Afghanistan.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Some La Jolla public schools are preparing to welcome refugee students from Afghanistan.

The students, many of whom are entering kindergarten through fifth grade at Torrey Pines Elementary School, are part of a larger group of recently arrived families whose 160 children are being placed in San Diego Unified School District schools.

Torrey Pines Elementary is taking most of the students coming to La Jolla; a few others are being placed at other public schools in town.

TPES Principal Nona Richard, who announced the enrollments in an email to parents Feb. 4 and conducted a “meet and greet” with the refugee families the same day, told the La Jolla Light that the school is “excited to welcome these students. … It is an honor to provide a foundation for their lives and dreams in America.”

“These families are very grateful to be enrolling in SDUSD schools,” Richard said.

In the email, she said “our observation is that most of our new families include displaced professionals whose children have school experience.”

San Diego Unified requested that the names of the other schools, the specific number of students at each school and details about the families’ living arrangements not be published out of concern for their safety.

District spokesman Mike Murad said SDUSD is working with the International Refugee Committee, Catholic Charities and the Alliance for African Assistance in placing and aiding the families.

Richard said the district is providing an interpreter full time for the students’ first week, which begins Monday, Feb. 7, and then for three hours a day after that through mid-March.

A teacher from the district’s Office of Language Acquisition also will be onsite the first week to support the students.

Richard said she is working with departments such as Nursing & Wellness, Human Resources and Food Services for further student support and to “manage implications for current Torrey Pines students throughout the weeks ahead.”

She shared several links with TPES families to help prepare their children to welcome the refugee students and said teachers will review the material in classes.

Psychologist and childhood war refugee Katherine Nguyen Williams
Psychologist and childhood war refugee Katherine Nguyen Williams says it’s important that community members help refugee families feel welcome.
(Courtesy of Katherine Nguyen Williams)

Psychologist Katherine Nguyen Williams, a professor of psychiatry in the UC San Diego School of Medicine, said it’s important to remember that refugees are “leaving a war-torn country, perhaps one that they still love and didn’t want to leave,” but aren’t able to return.

She said many refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and/or anxiety.

She said local community members should try to “help these refugee families feel like they belong here in their new adoptive country, [that] they belong in our community, that they’re accepted.”

Nguyen Williams, whose four children have attended TPES, is a childhood war refugee herself. Her father was the deputy province chief in South Vietnam and fled execution with his family as the capital fell.

She said one of the things that made the largest impact for her was when a student at her new school defended her after someone made fun of her food.

“One kid sticking up for me made all the difference in how I felt in that moment,” she said. “It just changed this feeling of fear and anxiety to relief and gratefulness for this kid.”

Nguyen Williams said welcoming refugee students presents opportunities for children to connect with those who have had “such a dramatically different experience from them.”

She noted TPES’ proximity to UC San Diego, with its visiting researchers and postdoctoral students, and said the elementary school has “always had an international student body. When my eldest was in kindergarten, he had 24 languages represented in his classroom.”

Nguyen Williams said she’s excited for TPES students new and old to “develop ... hopefully lifelong friendships.” ◆