Raised in refugee camps: Meeting the early childhood education needs of Memphis immigrants

Ruth Lomo and her family fled to Uganda from Sudan in 1993 during the middle of the Second Sudanese Civil War. Two years later, they left for Kenya and stayed there for six years. “We’re forced to flee our country,” Lomo said. “We ran from one country to another for our safety.

For that reason we fell behind in education.”


By the time she arrived with her family in the United States in 2001, her eldest child was old enough to be an eighth grader. Unfortunately, he had not received the proper education to prepare him for middle school.


“Most of our children were born and raised in refugee camps. So when they get here, they are placed according to age, not skill level,” Lomo added.
Refugee Empowerment Program founder Ruth Lomo (Averell Mondie)
Fearing that her children would fall too far behind in their education, she sought help. Her church was able to find volunteers to tutor her children and also to secure scholarships for them to attend Evangelical Christian School. Things were looking better for Lomo, but she felt more could be done.


“We as refugees, we have a problem,” she said. “I have this huge help. I’m supposed to share the blessing with the people around me.”


In 2002, Lomo started the Refugee Empowerment Program, an after-school program for 12 refugee children in Leawood Baptist Church in Highland Heights. She volunteered full-time and needed more help to scale the program. That’s where Camela Echols came in.


“That’s where I met 12 little children that I fell in love with. This is what I want to be a part of,” Echols said.

Echols was already a seasoned social worker and knew that Lomo and her program needed a home closer to where they lived. “I joked about it. Why would refugees choose to come to Memphis? To Binghampton?” she said.

Related: "Finding new life for Binghampton's international community"

Echols wasn’t aware that most refugees have no choice for the most part in where they get placed in the U.S. “That was the beginning of my education,” she added.

Families from over 20 nationalities call Binghampton home thanks to re-homing programs such as World Relief Memphis. To better meet Memphis' international population, REP moved from Leawood to Binghampton in 2008.


REP is located inside The Commons on Merton, a church building that formerly housed the Everett Memorial United Methodist Church until the building was donated to the Center for Transforming Communities after dwindling attendance numbers. Now, The Commons houses eight programs directly related to community service in Binghampton, including a community garden, various worship spaces, and the Mid-South Immigration Advocates, non-profit immigration law firm.

Related: "Binghampton organizations find community at The Commons"


The REP’s after-school space is bright, colorful, and well-lit. Laminated pictures of 27 different nations’ flags are pasted on an air vent that runs the length of the room visible from almost anywhere you stand. There are two little libraries, one cozily tucked away in a carpeted corner, and one atop a stage at the head of the room. Both are full of age-appropriate reading material from Dr. Suess, to Harry Potter, to educational workbooks.

Refugee Empowerment Program volunteers work with children in the Pre-K class. (Averell Mondie)


Pictures drawn by the after-school kids were arranged on a wall in a quilt pattern. Senior mentor coordinator Lauren McCormick called them identity maps.


“If you were a country, what would be on your flag?” she asked. This exercise helps the children think about what makes them unique as individuals. Most of the children drew things they liked and listed their personality traits. The younger children drew expressive scribbles.

Related: "Refugee parent training launches in Binghampton"

Echols, REP’s program director, is prepared for the challenge ahead. “Teachers are telling us, ‘refugee immigrant kids are coming into our schools with no socialization skills, never being in a classroom setting to learn that structure,’” she said.

REP offers programs that build language abilities and assimilation among children and adults. Most recently, they launched a pre-K readiness program with the help of Memphis-based foundation Urban Child Institute.


The children are three to four years old, and, on a good day, there are about 10 to 12 students.

“We’ve seen with our teacher surveys that you can tell these kids have gone to a pre-K program. They’re seeing some of the socialization skill problems they normally have to deal with aren’t there anymore," Echols said. 


REP’s pre-K program has one full-time instructor and one volunteer instructor. The enrollment process is as about as streamlined as you could get.


“Just show up,” Echols said.

Identity maps drawn by children in the Refugee Empowerment Program after-school class are a self-exploration exercise. (Averell Mondie)

The two instructors lead the class in a sing-along about numbers, but the children were more interested in their LeapStart learning systems, which are electronic devices by LeapFrog for pre-K children that turn compatible books into complete interactive activities.


Echols knows that computers are already ingrained in the classroom, even as early as kindergarten. She thinks the LeapStart systems better prepare the children for an education system that assumes students are already technologically literate.


“Our refugee students were coming into classes and weren’t familiar with electronic technology, so one of the things that were able to do is provide that opportunity,” she said.


The LeapFrog systems used in the pre-K classroom aren’t very complicated, but they can familiarize their users with a simple point-and-click interface. This year, Shelby County Schools is taking steps to shift the TNReady standardized test to an online testing format. Students start taking the TNReady assessment in the second grade, which only a few years away for the children that are enrolled in REP's pre-K program.


Technology isn’t the only hurdle in the path of educating child refugees. In a 2016 study, the Migration Policy Institute found that only 42 percent of refugee children are enrolled in pre-K programs, compared to 48 percent of children born in the US. Refugee children from certain countries are enrolled at lower rates than others. The 12 children in REP’s pre-K program are from Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan; the latter two nations being among those that fall below the 42 percent enrollment rate. Many factors contribute to this, with parent illiteracy and general distrust of the government being two major ones.


On March 17th, Mayor Strickland unveiled a new plan that would generate $6 million per year towards funding pre-K enrollment in Shelby County by 2022. Whether or not the REP will receive any city funding for their pre-K program is yet to be seen, as the program exists today solely because of funding from the Urban Child Institute.

Children of refugee families often face a technology learning curve. Devices like the LeapFrog learner help bridge that gap. (Averell Mondie)

“We don’t receive state funding for that program,” Echols said. While the rest of the REP does have help from city organizations, the pre-K program is privately funded through the Urban Child Institute.


Echols believes that the REP doesn’t flinch when faced with a challenge.


“We serve over 400 refugees from 30 different countries — African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American,” she said. Echols knows that President Trump’s promise to lower the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. will hurt thousands of hopeful refugees, but it hasn't yet how has affected REP’s pre-K enrollment numbers.


“Those haven’t declined,” she said. “Our community knows where we stand. We know our rights, we know what we’re doing, and we educate the community.”


Lomo found some parents were reluctant to send their children to a church at first.


“We had people who were Muslim, who did not want the children to go to the church,” Lomo said.

Muslim parents feared the program was Christian in nature and would contradict the Muslim teachings they were learning at home. While the REP was founded inside of a Baptist church and is now housed in a former Methodist one, both Echols and Lomo adamantly deny any specific religiosity in any of REP’s programs.


“I think too often because we are in the Bible Belt that people think you have to be overtly Christian, we got to proselytize, we got to evangelize, but I think Jesus met people where they were,” Echols said.


Some rooms in the REP still have remnants of the building’s old identity, but they’re mostly signs and paintings that refer to abstract concepts not specific to any one religion, like faith and love.


“Because I am a Christian, I don’t have to say what I am. I ought to live that life, it should be in the work that I do,” Echols added.


Lomo helped the refugee community put aside religious differences and rally around what was really important — the children.


“When you want to build a community, you have to identify something that all can relate to. This was something that all the refugees, regardless of their color, ethnic background, or religion, could relate to. They all need help. Because it was founded on this need, everybody connected to that. It’s not about religion, it’s about helping our kids.”

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is one article in a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education.  The Urban Child Institute focuses its grant making, advocacy and community support on kindergarten readiness and third grade literacy in an effort to improve the education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Wesley Morgan Paraham.

Wesley Morgan Paraham is a Memphis native and huge fan of the 901. He enjoys writing about music and art especially from local artists. He has freelanced as a graphic designer and videographer. He is currently attending the University of Memphis and seeking a degree in Public Relations. One day, he'll actually manage to find it.