08/31/2015 06:51 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

My Six Weeks at RYSA

While I was looking for programs to be a part of in the late winter to early spring, I noticed that I was running out of time. I was looking for a program that worked within my interests as well as being local in NYC. There are countless of organizations that facilitate charity/classes in various countries, but those programs became limiting to me as I realized I wanted to be doing a few things at once. After a bit of extra searching, I found an organization called the International Rescue Committee, or the IRC. The slogan of the IRC is "From Harm to Home," and this saying is also their goal. After digging around their website, I learned that they help people who are refugees from their country or seeking asylum in getting their American citizenship. Eventually, I found a program that was almost exactly what I was looking for.

Through the IRC, I found a volunteer opportunity in one of their summer programs called the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, or RYSA. RYSA is a school-readiness program focused on helping children who are refugees be ready for the school year in a new country. This interested me particularly because of the fact that these are children from all different cultures who all speak different languages and they all have different beliefs; and to see all of these differences in one building for six weeks all while trying to understand their new American identity sounded unbelievably amazing. I filled out the not-too-lengthy process of uploading various pieces of information as well as a resumé. Afterwards had a 30 minute mini-interview call followed by a in-person interview a few weeks later. By the end of it all, I was informed that I was accepted as a peer mentor to upper elementary 1, which is about the ages of 6-8.

After participating in a three day long training with all the other peer mentors at the public school where RYSA would take place, we got to set up the classrooms for the kids and we learned what our job was and what to expect on some level. As a peer mentor, my job is to be their friend in a sense. During activities either academic or extracurricular I'd participate, help out or work with someone one-on-one while the assistant teacher and head teacher lead the class. It was also explained that while we could, and should, be jovial and fun, we also need to be careful. We were told that some of the kids have probably seen things that no grown adult should ever see, and to be ready if they suddenly share it because it could happen. One issue that came up was the original classroom my kids were given was covered wall-to-wall with posters of heavy metal bands, so much so that the room became known as the "megadeath classroom." These posters aren't something particularly fear-inducing to an american teenager who has seen them before, but to children who have no clue what those posters mean and why they're there, they could be very unsettling. After dealing with the megadeath classroom and getting the room changed, it opened my eyes to how fragile these kids may be and I began to be concerned about certain situations that wouldn't be the end of the world, but are definitely not welcomed. Situations like fighting, complete emotional breakdown, acting out to be kicked out of the program, generally not listening and even just complete lack of English, even though that was explicitly said to be something that we will come across.

It was hard to get rid of some of these worries, even when the first day started. Kids began to file in slowly and a few came to our table in the cafeteria. For a while me and the other two morning peer mentors were confused since we only had about 3 kids for a while. We tried to play name games and get them to start talking, but everyone was very quiet. A few more kids came in and they were just as quiet, which only made the situation worse. About 15 minutes of awkwardly sitting quietly at the table, I decided that this isn't helpful. I ran upstairs to the classroom we had prepared the week before and grabbed some color pencils and construction paper. Once we got the kids drawing, the kids began to wake up and become a bit more talkative. After my first day, all my worries melted away until nothing but excitement remained. My class, while we have our one or two kids who are trouble every once in a while, was amazing. They love to participate, try, create, dance, sing, listen, they respect the adults, but even more importantly they respect each other. After our first field trip, the kids really bonded with me for only one reason really. I could pick them up. They all took turns on my shoulders as I ran around, or just piling on top of me to keep me from standing. I have to say, nothing is more fear-inducing than 6 kids piled on top of you all cackling as loudly as humanly possible.

I began to love RYSA so much that even though my hours are 9-12, some days I stay the full day because I either was helping teach a music class in the afternoon, staying for the spirit day events or just because I feel like I'm missing out on the fun afternoon activities like storytelling or gym. RYSA has really opened my eyes to an issue that plagues refugee children to an extreme extent, which is that these kids don't know how to act in American schools. on the first day, I had kids who thought they needed to stand to speak to adults, others who refused to make eye contact and others who were just generally scared to speak at all. Without a program like RYSA, these kids would be thrown into NYC public schools and would very quickly fall through the cracks of the school system due to no fault of their own.

To close out this post, I want to tell one of my favorite stories, of which I have many. To many at RYSA, this event was eventually titled "Cheesepocalypse" by the principle of the program. During check out, one girl, who speaks no english and only Spanish, began to cry. Her brothers were trying to drag her out the door, but this little girl absolutely refused to leave despite her brother pretending to leave without her. After about 10 minutes of pure tantrum, we learn through one mumbled word what is wrong, "queso." I didn't know what this meant, but one of the peer mentors who speak a little Spanish was able to tell us that it meant cheese. We tried explaining that her brother can buy her cheese outside and that she had to leave since the building closes soon, but she was having none of it. In a moment of desperation, I ran upstairs to a vending machine that the kids aren't allowed to use in hopes that there may be cheese in it for whatever reason. I find that machine has no cheese, but it does have cheddar cheese flavored sunchips. Out of options, I buy the chips and happen to find that someone bought cookies that they didn't grab. Armed with cheddar cheese sunchips and a bag of cookies, I walk up to the crying girl. I sit on the floor to get on her level and say "look! queso!" while pointing at the chips. Still getting no reaction, I leave the chips sitting in front of her and then say "I have some cookies too..." and put those in front of her as well. Waiting a moment, she moves her fingers aside to gaze at the free food sitting in front of her, only to then very slowly push the bags of food closer in front of her. She opened the chips up, and everyone cheered. We finally get her out of the school, 30 minutes after dismissal, and I go home to immediately fall asleep and wake up the next morning to go back to RYSA to have some new stressful but hilarious experience waiting for me.