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3 Ways Schools can Help Refugees during the Trump Administration

Headshot: 2018 Meade Fellow Mark Kabban

3 Ways Schools can Help Refugees during the Trump Administration

Mark Kabban, a 2018 Meade Fellow, met with education and policy influencers during a week-long visit to Washington, D.C. The fellowship provided him with an opportunity to meet with organizations working on immigrant and refugee issues.

by Mark Kabban, 2018 Meade Fellow. The Meade Fellowship is an opportunity run by IEL and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As part of the fellowship, Kabban met with several education and public policy influencers during a week-long visit to Washington, D.C. The fellowship provided him with an opportunity to meet with organizations working on immigrant and refugee issues.

I have spent the past decade working in one of the largest refugee communities in the United States as an educator, an organizer, and an advocate. Being proximate to the community I wished to serve was critical in my understanding of the varying and common experiences of refugee resettlement in the US. However, my motivation to become a Meade Fellow was to learn about the D.C. ecosystem of politics, policies, and systems that helped shape the resettlement process itself.  Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese-American author said, “Is not the mountain more clearly visible to one passing through the valley, than to those who inhabit the mountain?” I had to leave the mountain to discover what formerly seemed like an esoteric network of representatives, organizations, and institutions who in large part, decide the policies and resources that will have generational impacts on our nation’s newest Americans.

An American public education remains a promise that most refugee families in the U.S. still believe in. Under the Trump administration, educators are going to have to intentionally work to keep it that way as schools are becoming increasingly susceptible to anti-refugee sentiments. My mother believed in this educational promise and made it her mission to get my family to the U.S. when we were displaced by war. After three of my mother’s family members were killed, my parents knew they could face the same fate if they didn’t leave Beirut. During the Lebanese Civil War an estimated 150,000 people were killed and more than 1 million, a quarter of the population, were displaced. I was in the fourth grade, and at school in San Diego I was completely out of place. Kids didn’t like me. In my failed attempt to pull off a grunge, Kurt Cobain style, I ended up looking like a 90’s Lebanese boy version of Alanis Morissette. I flunked my freshman year in high school. Eventually, I found my passion in sports, and I found purpose. I was able to get my grades high enough to attend Baker University on a football scholarship.

Narrative of Refugees as a Financial Burden

During those early days in San Diego, being on welfare was a source of shame, but upon reflection, I realize that it provided the temporary help we needed to contribute to the very system that helped us.  During my time as a Meade Fellow, I met with the former ORR appointee of President Obama, whose former agency recently surfaced a report, finding that over the past decade, the government earned $63 billion more in tax revenue from refugees than the refugees cost the government. This study showed the positive impact of refugees, discrediting the narrative that refugees are a drain on the government. Subsequently, the Trump administration dismissed the study as invalid. In fact, a leaked draft executive order, shows that President Trump is considering a public charge that would make it impossible for legal immigrants to obtain green cards, if they have ever received any temporary Federal cash, nutrition, or health benefits. 

Systemic Defunding and Defaming of Refugee Communities

The refugee population in the U.S. are having to rebuild their lives with fewer temporary supports. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which administers the “Entrance Assistance Program,” providing families with “time-limited cash benefits and numerous non-cash federal benefits, including food assistance through SNAP, medical care, and education,” has been cut 31% by the Trump administration. The allocated budget has gone from $695 million in FY 2017 to $479 million for this fiscal year. Furthermore, increased hostility toward refugees is being reinforced by top state officials, local mayors, and, according to reports, anti-Muslim hate crimes are up 91% as compared to this same period last year. Here’s the question for educators, What can school districts do to help refugee students succeed during the Trump administration?

What Roles Might Schools Play in the Equation?

Here are three recommendations from innovative school districts from California and New York:

  1. Refugee Parent Engagement
    Research on parent engagement suggests that when parents are active in school, their children become more motivated learners, get good grades, and experience a sense of belonging.1 In U.S. schools, however, refugee parents face significant language, cultural, and educational barriers.2 Recently, San Diego has been at the forefront of refugee education with one district in particular receiving attention for its inclusive practices. Cajon Valley Union School District, located east of San Diego, has one of the largest refugee student populations in the country, and they are making progress on parent engagement. One initiative is called “Parent University.” CVUSD is doing something that may appear counterintuitive for building English literacy. They encourage refugee parents to read to their children and strengthen their native language, thus making it easier for schools to not only teach English but also include high-level content. Eyal Bergman, who leads the Family and Community Engagement Office, explains that the “research on English acquisition is clear; if the foundation in their primary language is strong, they can better access English. When the kids are learning English, and they have the Arabic-equivalent vocabulary, they can make that bridge.”
  2. Design Newcomer Classes or International Schools for Refugees
    Educators continue to debate whether district English Learner (EL) supports should be centralized or offered at multiple sites. International schools, which have resulted in higher graduation rates compared to their peers, does the former by exclusively serving newcomer students for two years before transferring them to regular high schools. Faculty teach both content and English simultaneously. They are “specifically designed to serve refugee and immigrant newcomers and engage in ‘translanguaging’ practices by which they encourage students to use multiple languages toward both content mastery and social belonging.”3Osama, a sophomore refugee from Iraq, tells a story that illustrates this contrasting approach. When he came to the U.S. as a fifth-grader, his neighborhood school had newcomer programs, but they were at capacity. He had to attend a different school with only mainstream classes. He says, “It was the hardest time of my life because I was put in regular classes. As a kid coming from a new country, I was excited and wanted to get better. But it was frustrating; I was trying my best and couldn’t understand anything, so I began to give up.” One month later, Osama was able to return to a centralized support school where he learned quickly and is now an honor-roll high school student.
  3. The Push for a Four-Year Path to Graduation
    During my visit to DC, I met with a senior policy analyst from the Migration Policy Institute who authored a report which described how some states are creating pathways to graduation. The report explains how New York schools are increasingly finding ways for refugee students to receive course credit to fulfill graduation requirements during their 9th and 10th grade courses. For example, in New York, EL specialists team with content certified teachers to offer students credit that counts toward graduation. “In this system, students are able to take as many credit-bearing courses as their non-EL peers and are supported in at least one of those courses with integrated EL instruction.”4 Arizona’s policy serves as a contrast, requiring a year of EL status courses with limited opportunities to take credit-bearing classes. As a result, students “increasingly fell behind in their core academic content.”5

Despite our tense atmosphere, the U.S. is home to one-fifth of the world’s migrants and, although having recently slipped, remains a top 10 best country in which to be an immigrant. Getting involved in your local schools can be a critical lifeline for refugee youth under the Trump administration. 

Mark Kabban founded Yalla SD, an NGO whose mission is to strengthen the social cohesion of refugee youth in the US. Yalla is the only STEM and college preparatory program in California that combines the promise of education and the passion of soccer to inspire refugee youth to achieve their higher education goals. In 2015, he established a college hub for refugee and immigrant youth in San Diego. Yalla’s state-of-the-art facility & technology program allows students to work toward mastery, while promoting creative thinking and guiding youth through the college-application process. To date, graduates of Yalla have earned just over $5 million in college scholarships. Yalla has served approximately 2,500 students–88% of which have accepted into universities, 60% of whom pursued STEM majors in college. Kabban received his master’s from Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is currently a doctoral candidate. He is fluent in English and Arabic. Kabban has received recognition for his leadership role at Yalla. In 2011, Do named Kabban as one of the top five best young world changers and in 2012, CNN Heroes recognized Kabban as an International Hero for founding Yalla. Kabban has spoken at TEDx twice, been featured on BBC, UNHCR, NPR, Disney, and ESPN, and was the commencement speaker at Baker University in Kansas.


  1. Georgis, R., Gokiert, R. J., Ford, D. M., & Ali, M. (2014). Creating inclusive parent engagement practices: Lessons learned from a school community collaborative supporting newcomer refugee families. Multicultural Education, 21(3), 23-27.
  2. Githembe, P. K. (2009). African refugee parents’ involvement in their children’s schools: Barriers and recommendations for improvement (Order No. 3399419).
  3. Dryden-Peterson, S., & Reddick, C. (2017). “When I am a President of Guinea:” Resettled refugees traversing education in search of a future, European Education, 49(4), 253-275, doi: 10.1080/10564934.2017.1344865
  4. Sugarman, J. (2017). Beyond teaching English. Supporting high school completion by immigrant and refugee students. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
  5. Lillie, K. E. et al. (2010). Policy in practice: The implementation of structured English immersion in Arizona. Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from