Article by: Vedad Ghavanini
I met officer Evans in his office at Akron North High School where for the past few years he has been the School Resource Officer during which he has been working with the International Institute of Akron (the IIA) as the Cultural Outreach Officer. His effort is to help the international students build a strong relationship within the school, the community, and the city of Akron.
The Akron North High School has over 800 students enrolled. 250-300 of these students are English as a Second Language (ESL) kids who are mainly refugees with only a small number as immigrants. This counts to about one third of the school population. For Officer Evans the biggest challenge is the language barrier. Although most of the students become completely fluent in English within a few years, the first year proves difficult. Fear of inability to communicate keeps the kids from coming to him with their problems but once the language barrier is lifted they are more comfortable seeking his guidance. Meanwhile officer Evans gets help from one of the more fluent kids to get his word across to others.
During one summer, Officer Evan worked on assignment in North Akron to develop relationship within the refugee community and the city of Akron and its residents, working closely with the churches, businesses, and variety of groups to make refugees feel like a citizen and part of the community and also to raise awareness within the Akron community. Officer Evans spent his days riding along with an interpreter through the refugee neighborhoods visiting families and businesses. The children got so familiar with his cruiser that he became sort of an ice cream man. When he would pull into the neighborhoods the kids would come running and officer Evans always had stickers and coloring books for them. His main challenge was to gain adults’ trust. The refugees come from a place where they have, most of their lives, run away from men in uniform and are fearful and untrustworthy of them. For them seeing a cruiser pull in was not so much of a joyful sight and they wouldn’t approach. Children don’t remember so much of what happened prior to them coming here so they are not fearful. One of officer Evan’s goals was to make adults understand that he is not there to abuse them rather to protect them. Now there is a new level of awareness among both adults and teenagers at school about what the police do. There is less fear and more trust. Even though the change is a slow one, it is a sure one.
Officer Evan’s has observed that it doesn’t take long for the teenagers to assimilate with the American culture. Within a year there is a shift in their wardrobe and demeanor and they become Americanized very quickly. Sometimes, to fit in, they develop some of the American ways that are not the greatest, like sagging pants and backwards hats. But the major problem, especially with the Nepalese male students, is smoking. Whether they develop the habit here or bring it with them is something to look into but it seems that smoking comes very natural to them. While possessing tobacco under the age of 18 is an arrestable offence, many of these students are already over the age of 18. Still, smoking is prohibited within the walls of school.
Another alarming issue is the percentage of refugees who continue education beyond high school. A few years ago the valedictorian at the Akron North High was a female refugee, an intelligent and driven girl who had arrived in the United States only four years prior and her inspirational speech included how she got here. However, last year many refugees were not able to pass the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). For many of these kids, who within their culture have learned that to survive you have to make money, the focus is getting through high school and getting a job. Many of the senior students only attend school half a day while they work the other half of the day. While self-sufficiency is a great accomplishment for these individuals, they need to keep their education as their priority. The ESL program for Akron public schools is very proactive to help the kids pass their OGT test so they can apply for colleges. They create individualized classes to help each student get through the test. Recently the Rosetta Stone program has been added to help enhance students’ English language ability which will help them in their overall academic performance.
While the children become fluent in English in a short amount of time, the adults are not as eager to learn and don’t see it as a necessity. They are more used to their own culture and language and their main communication is with their own community, therefore they don’t become fluent in English as fast. This creates an environment where the kids start running the households and the parents don’t know if the information they receive from their children are always 100% truthful. They can’t trust fully what is being relayed to them by children; how school is going, where the kids are at night and what goes on in the community. They feel lost.
Once a month Officer Evans creates a power point presentation for the International Institute of Akron. The purpose of this presentation is to teach the newly arrived refugees the basics of safety and neighborhood awareness, when and how to use 911 services, how to get ID cards, learning their own address, locking their doors, and more. There will also be a section added in each presentation on driving rules and regulations including child seats, seat belts, the process of getting a drivers license, and the importance of having driving insurance.
Officer Evans will continue his position at the Akron North High School working with the ESL children. He will also continue his monthly presentations for the IIA but during summer he won’t be on community outreach program because of staffing issues at the Akron Police Department (APD). The North Hill Community is sad not to see Officer Evans around the neighborhoods. His previous efforts made so many improvements in putting a stop to theft in ethnic stores, neighborhood safety, teaching the refugee population, and raising awareness within the North Hill community of Akron. The community wrote many letters requesting him back for summer but the APD stand its position. Officer Evans hope to be able to reach out to the local communities and to help them understand where the refugees come from and what they go through before and after they get here and to raise awareness on how behind they are when they get here and the culture shock that they go through not only as a family but as a community. Without the community’s help they won’t be able to fully build a new life and adapt to it. We need to let them know we are on their side.