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Schools Extending 'Lifeline' to Bosnian Refugees

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Chicago

They had been asked to draw memories of home. Semir, age 7, drew the sun above green grass and pink flowers poking up beside a sandbox. But 9-year-old Vahid outlined in black marker a small, grimacing figure facing two men with guns.

Across the top of his picture, in shaky block letters, Vahid wrote in Serbo-Croatian: "I was dreaming how they shot me,'' about the "Chetniks''--or Serbians--who had held him captive in his town and had forced the inhabitants to flee.

The boys, refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina, are two of the newest additions to the Thomas J. Waters Elementary School here. They embody the cultural and linguistic hurdles that U.S. schools must overcome to serve students who have fled war or persecution in their native countries.

Federal officials and private resettlement groups say they have no reliable statistics on the number of school-age refugees currently in American schools. The government's ceiling allows for 121,000 refugees to enter the United States in the current fiscal year; 55,000 slots are set aside for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the category under which Bosnians are entering.

Although the images that Semir and Vahid drew recently at school were vastly different, they both plainly represent the tugs that such students feel about homes that, in many cases, no longer exist.

About 5,200 people escaping the ethnic conflict that began in 1991 in the former Yugoslavia have gone through the refugee-resettlement program of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department since February 1993, according to department officials. Most of them are Bosnian Moslems or families created by marriages that cross ethnic lines; the majority have been resettled in Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, and Houston to be with other family members.

Dubbed "reluctant refugees'' by some of the agencies contracted by the department to resettle them, many young Bosnians arrive in America burdened with the trauma of moving into a foreign culture and with horrific memories of the human destruction they left behind.

Tomas E. Revollo, the principal at Waters Elementary School, argued that the Bosnian students differ from some other refugee populations that have found their way into U.S. schools, such as Vietnamese and Cambodians. "Their house wasn't blown up the month before,'' he said, referring to groups that arrived in the United States after war in their homelands had ended.

"These [Bosnian] kids are literally dropped out of the air,'' he said.

But sometimes the schools are not there to catch them. Because many of the Bosnian refugees, about 30 percent of whom are children, are being resettled in urban areas, as are many other refugees, they often enroll in schools that have the most strained resources.

School Treatment Scarce

The experiences the Bosnian children have lived through sometimes trigger posttraumatic-stress disorder, manifested in symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks. But most school psychologists have not been taught how to diagnose the problem, said Philip A. Saigh, the head of the doctoral program in school psychology at the City University of New York.

Treatment available through schools to students traumatized by war is "very little or nonexistent,'' according to Vivian W. Lee, the director of the immigrant-student project at the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.

Even Newcomer High School in San Francisco, which was set up specifically for refugee and immigrant students, has only one full-time counselor and another who works part time on the 450-student campus, Principal Herb Chan said.

The problem, Mr. Revollo said, is that teachers have not been trained to pick up on emotional problems and that, "as an educational system, it's never been a priority to work with kids' emotions at all.''

And often there is little communication between local resettlement agencies and the schools.

"We have to work hard to make sure these kids don't get lost, regardless of whether a school can offer direct service or not,'' said Scott Poland, the director of psychological services for the Cypress-Fairbanks school district in Houston and the author of a book on crisis intervention in schools.

'Totally Unprepared'

Chicago's 650-student Waters Elementary School is about 60 percent Hispanic, and some 14 languages are spoken in its halls.

The 80-year-old brick school is in Lincoln Square, in the northwest part of Chicago, a few blocks from the main shopping artery, where European pastry shops and German delis are being squeezed by the newer taco shops.

The school's first nine Bosnian students arrived last September. "We were totally unprepared for that,'' Mr. Revollo said.

Now there are 34 Bosnian students, some of whom Mr. Revollo has bused in from other neighborhood schools. They are a majority in the crowded English-as-a-second-language class.

To help deal with the cultural divide and war trauma that many refugees experience, schools generally call on the newcomers' community to fill the void, Ms. Lee said.

But that is no easy task here.

Although one of the few Bosnian Moslem populations in the country is in Chicago, it numbers fewer than 3,000.

In contrast, two other major groups from the former Yugoslavia have a substantial presence. The city's Serbian and Croatian populations are each estimated to be as large as 300,000. Many of the Serbs live on Chicago's South Side; most of the new Bosnians are being resettled on the North Side.

And Mr. Revollo said he fears that his students will be exploited for different groups' political ends. He does not want the school to be caught in the middle, he said.

Reflecting the ethnic clash in their native country, the Bosnian students earlier this year rejected a potential bilingual teacher because she had a Serbian last name, Mr. Revollo said. They also objected because she did not speak "Bosnian,'' a dialect of Serbo-Croatian that is largely a political creation, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington.

Mr. Revollo said he may have found a more suitable candidate--at a pizza stand a few blocks from the school. A woman who works there had taught school for 22 years in Bosnia; she arrived in Chicago less than a year ago as a refugee.

Attempts at a New Beginning

In the interim, there is "Mr. Eddy,'' as the Bosnian students call Eddy Patay. Born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and a survivor of the Holocaust, he is the students' "lifeline,'' one teacher said.

Mr. Patay started volunteering in the school after his wife, who works as a consultant to the school, told him about the Bosnians. He and a social worker have set up a therapeutic "play group'' for them.

For a few hours each Wednesday, Mr. Patay and Mercedes Cisneros-Watson, the social worker, spend time with the Bosnians, playing games, drawing, or talking. An art therapist sometimes joins them.

Intensifying the trauma is the fact that most of the students came from economically and emotionally stable families in their homeland, Ms. Cisneros-Watson said.

"Some of our inner-city students and other refugees from the get-go don't have these things, but these children were stripped of that overnight,'' she said.

'A Different War'

Rajina M. Namrod, the students' E.S.L. teacher, said that at times their needs can be overwhelming.

"It's like I don't know who to deal with first,'' Ms. Namrod said. "I'm very careful of what I say because I don't want to bring the memories back.''

Linda Garcia, a 5th-grade teacher, uses Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo, the widely publicized book by Zlata Filipovic, now 13, to explain to her students where and what their new Bosnian classmates have come from.

While Ms. Garcia recognizes the trauma that many of the Bosnian children have gone through, she said she is careful to balance her energies among all her children, some of whom were feeling jealous of the attention given the Bosnians.

"You see that the other kids here are coming from a different war,'' Ms. Garcia said, citing the poverty, abuse, and neglect with which many of her other pupils live.

And the Bosnians are just one among many recent groups of war refugees to enter U.S. schools.

At Seattle's Sharples Alternative High School, for example, where a majority of the roughly 400 students are immigrants and refugees, there has been an influx in recent months of students fleeing the fighting in Somalia.

Art M. Kono, the director of bilingual and compensatory-education for the Seattle schools, laughed when asked if the schools were notified before the Somalis arrived.

"I watch the news on TV. I see whoever is at war, and within six to eight months, I figure they'll be here,'' he said.

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