Oakland Schools Face Increased Challenges to Support Newcomer Students

Oakland International High School library

Oakland International may have the only Arabic-speaking mental health counselor in the district

In the wake of rising, visible anti-immigrant attacks and xenophobic sentiment in the country, Oakland public schools are struggling to respond to the needs of newcomer students who have come to the US for refuge or seeking asylum.

Schools like Oakland International were set up years ago to receive immigrant high school students whose unique challenges include learning English and becoming acclimated to their new lives in the US, all while working to succeed academically.

But the challenges have grown dramatically given the climate in the country and the school’s pledge to provide a safe and nurturing learning environment while responding to students’ psychological needs.

Not only are more newcomer students who need psychological care making their way to Oakland, immigrant youth who live in Oakland are facing increased harassment outside of schools.

Nouf Alrashid is the only Arabic-speaking counselor who works at Oakland International through Partnerships for Trauma Recovery (PTR), a nonprofit that provides psychological care and school clinicians for refugees in the Bay Area.

Nouf Alrashid

She may also be the only Arabic-speaking mental health clinician regularly working on campus in the Oakland Unified School District.

According to Alrashid, despite the popular belief that the Bay Area is exempt from the xenophobia being exemplified by other parts of the country, she has noticed a growth in incidents in off-campus harassment of the school’s Muslim students since election season last year.

“Every week, a student comes to me about this. Boys get more assault issues with being physically assaulted,” she said. “The girls experience more verbal assault and getting their hijabs pulled, or followed home after getting off the bus.”

The Oakland school district does not have a school bus system, so many students take public transportation to and from school. This is where immigrant students are more likely to experience harassment.

Alrashid shared one anecdote from after President Trump’s election where a group of Yemeni girl students began carrying index cards with their names and a statement that they cannot speak English, to encourage potential assaulters to stop harassing them.

“It was very difficult to do. I just felt so helpless,” she said.

Oakland International provides a variety of resources and support for its students, including afterschool programs, community outreach efforts, know-your-rights training, specialized tutoring for refugees transitioning to living in the US and language classes for parents.

“Many of our students are refugees or are undocumented and they need more support than a classroom can provide,” said Madenh Hassan, an 11th grade history teacher at the school.

“My job also involves learning how to deal with students with trauma and learn the different types of trauma that different regions (they come from) have,” she said.

Many newcomer students come from countries that are facing conflicts and violence, such as Yemen, Syria and parts of Central America, where students’ families are likely to have been forcibly displaced. Many enter the country unaccompanied by an adult.

As a result, students often arrive having experienced traumas, in addition to the struggles of adjusting to their new lives, that require professional psychological support and counseling.

Language ends up being the biggest obstacle that schools face when attempting to provide this service to its newcomer students who speak little to no English.

With 11 percent of Oakland International’s student population coming from Yemen alone, and large numbers coming from other Arabic-speaking countries such as Iraq and Syria, the need for counseling outweighs the care that can be provided at the school, not to mention throughout the entire district.

To alleviate the needs of immigrant students, Alameda County contracts service providers to provide mental health at schools.

But most providers do not have Arabic-speaking clinicians who can work on site, according to Nate Dunstan, refugee specialist for the Oakland Unified School District’s Refugee & Asylum Program,

“There’s definitely a big gap,” Dunstan told the Post. “There’s a lot of Arabic-speaking students, especially coming from very recent violence, and I’m anticipating that when we get more there’ll be an even greater need (for services).”

One solution would be to have more culturally competent clinicians who speak the languages that are underrepresented, and Partnerships for Trauma Recovery hopes to have three more Arabic-speaking counselors next year, Alrashid said.

Others see schools as public institutions with the responsibility to push the rest of the community to bring together diverse people and ensure quality education for all students.

“(The district) adopted a sanctuary policy so we’ve been very clear and communicated in multiple languages that schools are safe places,” said School Boardmember Jody London, whose district houses Oakland International.

“If incidents of harassment occur off campus, we encourage students to report it to the district office or tell the school secretary.”

“Every adult on campus should be a resource for students and families who are feeling unsafe,” she said.


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