Equity & Diversity

Attacks on Immigrant Students in Philadelphia Aren’t New

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 29, 2009 1 min read

The attacks on Asian students in South Philadelphia have brought new attention to the issue of whether immigrant students feel and/or are safe in that city. The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story this month about how attacks on immigrants in Philadelphia schools aren’t new.

When I read the article, I recalled how sad I felt when I learned about how some Philadelphia young people were unwelcoming to four Sudanese refugees I interviewed for Education Week back in 2001. They reported to their host family that on their way to school on their first day of school in this country, some African-American youths shouted, “Why are you so black?” and “Go back to Africa.” The youths threw a glass bottle at the refugees, which shattered at their feet.

A school official told me one of the Sudanese had said to her that “he didn’t understand why kids would be doing this because they have a father and mother and food every day.”

Before the first day of school, the youths had visited their high school. And they told me how other students in the school had laughed at their appearance. One of the refugees had a word to sum up why they might have laughed: “Ignorance.”

But in that case, the assistant principal of the school held an assembly to educate students about the experiences of the Sudanese refugees, who were part of a group who became known nationally as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Not sure if their parents were alive or dead, they had traveled by foot for thousands of miles in Africa and watched some of their peers get attacked and eaten by wild animals.

When I observed the Sudanese in classes at that school, I saw students reaching out to them. Perhaps the assistant principal’s assembly made a difference.

What are some ways educators can help to build tolerance for newcomers who are immigrants in schools?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.