Story by Justin Glanville Photos by Julie Van Wagenen
Jennifer Rhone walks the hallway of Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy, where she’s one of two assistant principals, and gives a tall, dark-haired boy a wave.
“I’d adopt him if I could,” she confides, out of earshot. “He’s so smart and kind, but he’s struggled since he got to the U.S. He had a really difficult childhood…”
She passes one classroom after another, pointing out students from Afghanistan, Nepal, Peru, Zimbabwe. It’s dress-down day, and some wear clothes of the typical American teenager — brand-name T-shirts, jeans — while others are dressed in the traditional headwraps or gowns of their native lands.
She tells bits of their stories as she passes. One fled war in her native Syria. Another came from Nepal, where in 2015 two cataclysmic earthquakes leveled entire cities and led to the displacement of more than half a million families.
The Academy, now in its sixth full year of operation, is Cleveland’s first landing place for students whose families have either emigrated to the U.S. or — as is increasingly the case — have been settled here as refugees of war or environmental disaster.
Nearly 1,000 students now attend kindergarten through 12th grade at Thomas Jefferson, though the actual enrollment number is fluid.
“It changes by the day,” Rhone says. “As of last week it was 940, but just yesterday we got six new students.” (She checks later, and the official number is 952.)
That’s up from about 150 when the school first opened. The exponential growth is the result both of improved placement policies and Cleveland’s rising refugee population. Almost half of Thomas Jefferson students are now refugees.
The school employs a roster of multilingual teachers and instructional aides that evolves based on the language needs of incoming students. Current teachers and aides speak Spanish, Arabic, Somali, Chinese, and Swahili, among others.
Spanish remains predominant, with 46 percent of students speaking it as their first language, but Arabic and Swahili, currently 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively, may soon overtake it, Rhone predicts.
“What ties students together, Rhone says, is their shared status as newcomers — a bond that allows them to transcend the political and cultural divides that may have forced them to be enemies in their homelands.”
“You may have kids from two warring nations who eat together in the cafeteria,” she says. “That’s representative of their ability to recognize they’re in a new situation here. They want this opportunity to improve life for themselves and also for their families.”
In her two years here, she says, she’s witnessed perhaps three physical fights. Teasing and bullying are rare.
“It’s the best of Cleveland,” says Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, a nonprofit that connects newcomers to resources, jobs and social networks in Northeast Ohio. “A myriad of cultures are coming together — and not just the students but also teachers and visitors — to help young people launch.”
That’s good for the city, he says, and also reflects the priorities of Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, the comprehensive plan to provide effective public education options for all of the city’s students.
Perhaps the school’s biggest challenge, Rhone says, are the students’ internal states.
“Mental health concerns are huge,” she says. “We have students coming over from war-torn areas, and who knows what happened to their families. It’s amazing how well they do considering that, but many do need extra help.”
The school employs one full-time counselor and one part-time social worker who visits from an outside agency. Both are working at capacity.
Another daily stressor, for students and staff alike, is the Trump administration’s emerging immigration policy. The day after the 2016 election, special workshops were held because many students feared they or their families would be deported or penalized.
“I have to admit, at first I thought they were exaggerating,” Rhone says. “But their concerns ran the gamut — from kids who worried about not having proper documentation, to those who thought they wouldn’t be allowed to get a job or enroll in college.”
For many students — especially those in the U.S. without a visa — their sense of vulnerability ran deep. Others feared returning to places where their lives had been a daily nightmare of bombs, shootings and death.
Rhone, who emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, says in her view the school continues a tradition on which the country was built: the pursuit of happiness.
“It sounds cliché, but to me this place represents the opportunity for a new life,” she says.
“It’s not a free-for-all — you need to be a contributing citizen,” she adds. “But I think anyone would want the same thing for themselves if they were coming from a country that’s at war, or where they’re starving. They just want a good life.”
Basil Abdeljawad, 18, has been attending Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy since August 2016, when he emigrated from Jordan. He lives with his family in Rocky River.
My father had been working in the American embassy in Jordan for 22 years. He took immigration from the embassy and came here before me to see if life here was difficult or not. He liked it, and brought me back. He picked Cleveland because it’s not so expensive like New York or Chicago, but still has good opportunities.
I miss my country and my old friends. I can talk English, but not very well. But if I’m thinking, I want to stay here. If I go back to Jordan, the people have no work, no place to study. Here, I can make my future. I can go to college and find a job and become successful. I want to become an architect.
Many of my friends here are different from me because I’m an immigrant but they’re refugees. I have one friend, a refugee from Syria. He’s scared about if he’ll have to go back, like if Donald Trump says, ‘You go back to your country, you can’t stay.’ If he goes back, he’ll have to join the Army, and his life is over. He won’t be able to see his friends, family, anything. Just Army, Army, Army. He worries about that every day.
For me, I try to make relationships. That’s why I want to learn better English, to make relationships. I have new friends, and sometimes we go home and play cards, or go swimming, or play basketball. Or I live next to a guy with a dog. I talk to him about his dog. I know that’s how you make a relationship. You come out of your house and you talk to people.