Anti-bullying efforts focus on understanding refugees and immigrants

Refugee children and teens are among the more than 13 million young people in the United States who will be bullied this year. A program of CWS's Buffalo, N.Y., affiliate is helping to address that.

Kid's Talk team takes its anti-bullying message to an elementary school.  Photo: Journey's End Refugee Services

As the documentary film “Bully” screens in movie theaters across the United States, consider the following: Refugee children and teens are among the more than 13 million young people in the U.S. who will be bullied this year.

Among factors that make refugee kids especially vulnerable: They are new to U.S. culture and to their schools; probably don’t speak English; are perceived as “different” or “strange;” may be smaller in stature than most other kids, and are longing to fit in but don’t know how.

As for all young people, bullying can have dire life consequences. For example, in Buffalo, N.Y., four refugee teens from Burma were being bullied so incessantly that the school district removed them from their high school. They were transferred to four different schools. Lonely and isolated, they soon dropped out.

Among anti-bullying initiatives sponsored by Church World Service resettlement offices and affiliates is Kid’s Talk, a program of Journey’s End Refugee Services, Inc., in Buffalo. For the past four years, three ethnic Karen refugee boys – Soe Moe Thein, Moe Joe, and Kyaw Zin Oo – have been co-presenting with two adults in classrooms and at school assemblies for audiences ranging from elementary school to Ph.D. students.

Donna Pepero, Refugee School Impact Program Coordinator at Journey’s End, and the boys – grade schoolers when they started Kid’s Talk – developed Kid’s Talk with the goal of helping U.S.-born children understand that refugee newcomers to their classroom are more like them than different from them.

“My favorite presentation is the one we do for the elementary grades,” Pepero said. “We take the children through the anxiety refugee children experience when they step into an American classroom for the first time not knowing one word of English.”

An ethnic Karen adult poses as the teacher. Speaking only Karen, the “teacher” directs the children to sit down and hands out a short test. The questions are written in Karen. If a child asks a question, the “teacher” answers in Karen.

Actually the test questions are simple: What is your name? What is your favorite color? The three Karen refugee boys finish quickly and hand in their answers, while everyone else continues to flounder in confusion.

“Then we stop the exercise and explain this is how refugee children feel, children starting their lives over in a new country,” Pepero said. The exercise opens children’s empathy and interest in the Karen boys’ stories, and a lively discussion invariably ensues.

The Karen boys share their first impressions of America, the challenges they encountered when they first began school and how they overcame these challenges, what they like about Buffalo, what they miss about the life they left behind, how moving to America has changed their lives, what they are learned, and their future plans.

Pepero said, “It’s great to see ‘tough kids’ respond by softening and asking sensitive questions like, ‘What was it like to sleep on a bamboo floor?,’ ‘Did you miss TV?’ and ‘What did you have to leave behind?’”

“Children are the best educators to children,” she noted. “If you make an impact on the children, you are hopeful they will go home to dinner and tell Mom and Dad. That helps parents better understand immigrants and refugees, too.”

Pepero and her young collaborators – now 6th, 7th and 8th grade honors students – make presentations in schools on average once a week. “We could give a talk every day,” she said, “but I can’t take the boys out of school every day!”

For more information about Kid’s Talk:
•  Kid's Talk: The Stories of Refugee Children – a video from the program's early days
•  Journey’s End Refugee Services website
•  Contact: Ms. Donna Pepero,


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