There’s an acronym that’s often applied to school-age refugees: SIFE, or Students with Interrupted Formal Education.

The spaces between those four clinical-sounding, nondescript letters can hold worlds of experience — war, persecution, famine, horrific violence, the loss of a home, the tenuous uncertainty of the refugee camp. It’s not just missing school — it’s missing school for the worst possible reasons.

But if refugee children are to succeed in school in America, they still somehow have to make up for that lost time.  

“As a student at Pitt in 2013, I was a tutor for a (refugee) family in Pittsburgh,” explains Jenna Baron, Executive Director of the Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education (ARYSE). “I was part of a student group tutoring hundreds of young refugees around Pittsburgh. Most of these kids are the first in their family to go to high school.”

The academic outcomes were not great, she adds. 

“There was no system in Pittsburgh providing individualized support and relevant programming for those students. And they were not entering into mainstream summer camps. So we decided to organize one.”

Life-skills and team-building

Since 2013, ARYSE has been helping refugees succeed at school and feel less socially isolated within the community. The organization has programs for refugee students year-round, but the most important is the Academy summer camp (Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (PRYSE).

“It’s a completely free, three-week program for middle and high school students,” says Baron. “It helps kids develop skills and literacy, and also to engage in art and creative expression.”

There’s lots of soccer, of course — teaching life-skills and team-building through the one thing that refugees of varying languages and backgrounds usually have in common. There’s also a series of creative storytelling workshops that culminate in a public showcase.

“We’ve had kids draw a timeline or a picture about their personal stories, where they come from, what they like, where they’d like to go, their personal goals,” says Baron. “We always have dancers — kids who choreograph dances with music that is personal to them.”

ARYSE gets a lot of refugee students from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but there’s also a steady stream of students from Syria, Iraq and Central America.

The kids are evaluated before and after the camp, to determine their English proficiency. Often, the best way to gauge progress is simply to watch them interact with others. If they develop friendships with others in the program — particularly outside their native language group — that’s a clear marker of success.

ARYSE is run almost entirely by volunteers. Baron is the only full-time employee.

The organization has other programs that take place during the school year. There’s a regular after-school program on Tuesdays and Thursdays that helps with “general academic skill-building.” It’s led by volunteer mentors, trained by ARYSE. Another is the Girls Art and Maker Group, for refugee girls in middle and high school.

“They attend an art workshop led by a part-time teaching artist,” says Baron. Along with talking about managing emotions and stress, the students create a self-portrait that includes advice to a friend who is dealing with stress. Their own words, Baron says, may serve as “a reminder that we should often take the advice that we give to the people we love.”

Other art projects included woodblock printing: carving images on a woodblock, and making prints and t-shirts.

“It’s about creating an intimate space for girls,” Baron says, “to share experiences and develop community through art.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.