The Binghampton Development Corp. and Refugee Empowerment Program have teamed to offer parent-training and pre-K education for refugee families relocated to the Binghampton neighborhood.
Individuality and celebrating differences is a growing part of American culture. But when refugees are resettled in Memphis, sometimes they bring unique cultures that make the transition more difficult.
In Binghampton, where a large number of the city’s refugees are settled, there is a new push to ease that transition, particularly to help parents understand cultural differences and expectations in the U.S.
Refugee Empowerment Program, with assistance from the Binghampton Development Corp. is providing parent training at REP’s offices at The Commons on Merton Street.
Binghampton Development Corp.’s Community Building Manager Juanita White and Refugee Empowerment’s Executive Director Cam Echols organized the program to help parents with the transition to the U.S. and provide an understanding of parenting methods that often are different than old cultures.
“They’re so new to the country, and traditions and norms in this culture … little things like child protection, malnutrition and discipline,” White said. “We need to talk about what’s normal for this country. … They have a good sense of parenting and loving their children, but things are lost in a new country.”
Echols works closely with refugees from around the world and there have been common issues no matter the country of origin.
“Over the years some of the issues that have come up with immigrants not knowing expectations when it comes to parenting, discipline issues when it comes to this culture and how to navigate the educational support of their children,” she said. “Around parenting issues of can I spank, not spank. And over the years there have been families where their children have used their new country to basically get out of being disciplined at all.”
Sometimes the older children learn English much faster than their parents, and in an effort to be neighborly they are depended on for translation, changing the family dynamic.
Focus groups were formed last year, looking at the various challenges parents have faced as they assimilate to a new country.
“One of the things we struggle with is preserving the right of parents so they don’t feel vulnerable in a new country,” Echols said. “Yes, you’re still the overseer of your children and how do we equip them with that.”
After listening to the community, the BDC developed the parenting curriculum that works for newcomers to the community.
The program isn’t just for parents. In fact, White said this will serve much like a pre-K program for the refugee children in Binghampton.
“We just want to get these kids ready to enter kindergarten this time next year,” White said. “If we can do basic things – I want to have them understand concepts, colors, recognize the alphabet, write their name – it will be a big step.”
Echols said it became clear during the focus groups that children aren’t prepared to enter kindergarten.
“One of the things we wanted to do, because we have ESL classes, why couldn’t we make this an academic opportunity for toddlers where they learn vocabulary,” she said. “Parents are upstairs learning English and children are downstairs with educators and volunteers developing academically, too.”
It’s important that the children stay involved longer than the parents who participate in a six-week curriculum. White said the concentrated year-round attention is vital for the refugee children. It’s also important for the other residents of the neighborhood, but those children usually have better access than the refugees.
“If you give them concentrated attention and skills building then kindergarten becomes less of a challenge,” White said. “One thing I know is the refugee children, when they begin to learn, they do so at a rate higher than other children. Some of the challenges, African-American children in this community face, too. But they have entrée into the system. (Refugee) parents come to Memphis at different times of the year so their children aren’t able to plug into the system.”
Echols did say it’s important for the program to be inclusive of the neighborhood, even though the focus is on refugees. It’s for immigrants, also, she said.
“We developed this based on the needs of the community,” she said. “If we have a Hispanic mother that wanted to participate that we would work with the Hispanic community in providing the tools to them also.”
Parent-training topics will look at what’s good parenting, how to help children be happy and the importance of play, among others. It also will help parents with understanding the school system and ways to engage others in a new country.
The parent-training program will run for six weeks at a time and limited to no more than 20 participants. Any refugee parent interested can sign up. Many of them will come from Refugee Empowerment Program’s English as Second Language classes.
Classes generally will be every other week and focus on specific subject matters that could go beyond parenting and include topics such as trauma or domestic abuse.
The classes will start new every three months. Participants will decide when it’s held; for one group Saturday evenings might work best while the next group decides to meet Wednesdays at lunch, for example.
Where the program goes is unclear. If it works and there is a good assessment by next summer White said they possibly could look for more funding, maybe even see the start of a preschool for refugee children. It’s something that has been done in other communities.
White wrote the initial grant for the program after Echols approached her two years ago with the idea of parenting classes. White manages the program and the grant is with BDC, but the volunteers, space and parents – the heart and soul of the program, White said – rests with Refugee Empowerment Program.
The program is free thanks to the grant. Echols said that even if funding is no longer available in the future she hopes the program will continue in some capacity.
And there are opportunities for the community to get involved. Volunteers to work in a nursery for infants or to help with toddlers are always needed. Professionals are needed to go through various skills sessions. And individuals or groups are welcome to provide lunch for community meetings.
The program is refugee-led, so someone can speak to their own experience of being new in this country and can help others deal with the common issues faced.
“It becomes a process,” Echols said. “One of the things with a lot of our African cultures is spanking is OK. They come here and are told you can’t spank at all. There is a cultural struggle. How do you define discipline? How do we give positive reinforcement? With parents not understanding the language, and the kids hang with American peers so they’re pulled between two cultures. We’re giving parents the tools so if they need them they have them.”