World Comes Together at Summer Refugee Jumpstart Program

Wearing a star-spangled t-shirt, xxx from Congo gives a thumbs up as he joins other parents new to DMPS at the Jumpstart Refugee program.

Wearing a star-spangled t-shirt, Rafaei from Congo gives a thumbs up as he joins other parents new to DMPS at the Summer Refugee Jumpstart program.

If you were a refugee who escaped a war-torn homeland and you were doubly lucky you’d be welcomed wherever you landed by a man the likes of Vinh Nguyen. His official title at Des Moines Public Schools is Bilingual Outreach Program Supervisor. In layman’s terms, he’s a friendly face and an outstretched hand of welcome.

Nguyen knows what it feels like to gasp for breath in a sea of uncertainty, struggling to keep your head above turbulent water. He was a refugee himself when he came to Iowa in the exodus of “boat people” from the war in Southeast Asia in the early 1970s. Ever since he’s been a life preserver who throws himself back into those waters and pulls strangers from all over the world to safety.

This week and next he is coordinating a new DMPS effort: the Summer Refugee Jumpstart that’s headquartered at Meredith Middle School. Nearly 120 students and their families from far-flung lands including Iraq, Syria, Congo, Burundi, Eritrea, Myanmar, and Nepal are taking their first tentative steps into American culture. Tuesday morning they practiced the art of the high-five. By Friday they will have library cards. When school starts the children, who range from kindergarten to high school, will be practiced in basic routines of orderliness that many of them have never experienced before. There will still be long ways to go but they will have a good start. Thanks primarily to Nguyen.

“This is the work I love to do,” he said Tuesday morning, spreading his infectious grin through the ranks of his recruits.

Every family represented in the program is there as a direct result of a home visit from their new friend and advocate, Nguyen.

“Even after all these years I still remember what they are feeling. They are happy to be here but they are also scared and they need our help.”

Adults struggled to complete applications for the library cards they will receive when they go downtown on Friday to see the sculpture garden in Gateway Park and visit the central library.

“We are going to scoop the loop,” Nguyen said.

While infants rested on desktops and toddlers clung to the legs of elders, teacher Ryan Hawkins and Nguyen modeled a friendly introduction and the whole group stood to imitate them. “Hello, my name is…” followed by handshakes and smiles all around. A Congolese man named Rafaei wore a t-shirt spangled with white stars and stripes of red and blue as he made the rounds, greeting his classmates.

“Our goal in these two short weeks is for them to learn how to write and speak their names and addresses and phone numbers,” Nguyen said. “It’s just the beginning of a long process.” But it’s a good one.

In another classroom small children sang and danced together:

“Hello friends, how are you?
I’m very happy to see you.
Greet your neighbor.
Boogie on down.
Give a jump and turn around.”

Above their heads small inflatable globes dangling from the ceiling tiles were tickled by the ventilation in the room. They looked very much in the spirit of the activity which was as much an exercise in humanitarianism as education.

Since the 1970s, Des Moines has been a beacon for refugees from around the world, and today the school district serves a growing population of refugee students. During the 2015-16 school year, nearly 1,600 students classified as refugees, representing three dozen different nations, attended DMPS.

The summer program is made possible by a federal School Impact Grant. But it’s people like Nguyen and Hawkins and Meredith ELL teacher Jillea Bueso and DMPS Bilingual Community Outreach worker Larry Aye, a Burmese refugee who came here in 2007 and was naturalized last year, that bring it alive. Nguyen worked with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, branches of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to locate and introduce himself to the families that are participating.

He is a good man to know. No wonder people come from all over the world to meet him.

Video of the Summer Refugee Jumpstart Program

Photos of the Summer Refugee Jumpstart Program

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