The hallway outside of Alverno College’s cafeteria is buzzing with activity. Students from South Division High School are showcasing projects for Alverno’s Voices of Refugees Day to offer knowledge of their personal experiences as immigrants and refugees.
Students at South are a community of youth who come from diverse backgrounds including areas of great conflict. Their families have made Milwaukee a new home.
You can sense their confidence and pride.
“We might look different,” says one student, a native of Syria. “But at the end of the day, we’re all human begins.”
The sound of various languages collide in the air, and students are dressed in colorful, traditional garments representing their home countries. It’s impressive to see.
“What we have is a group of about 50 students who are refugees from across the globe who are telling their stories,” says Samantha Epstein, a social studies teacher at South Division.
Epstein says students began working their presentations weeks ago, doing of research in the classroom. Then, they studied a TED Talk by Novelist Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a “single story.”
“It’s this idea that if you knew nothing about Africa but what you see in the news, what would you think Africa is like?”
Walking around the room, students from Africa—and from all over the globe—have set up home made presentation boards.
South Division Freshman So So Ye, whose family is originally from Burma, has a booth showing a diorama.
It depicts a woman figure crouching behind stalks of green bamboo, taking cover.
“It tells the real life story of my grandmother and my mother,” Ye says.
My grandma, she lived in a village, and then the Burmese army came and burned the houses, and kill the people. And they killed my grandma’s husband. So my grandma, they went to a refugee camp to stay there, because it’s safe there, you know? And I was born in camp, there,” Ye says.
A version of Ye’s story is shared by so many students in the room — leaving home under unimaginable circumstances, coming to the U.S. and completely starting over. All before high school.
“I’m glad I came here, you know? Back there, it’s really hard living there, because of the education,” Ye says. “So I’m really happy that I’m here.”
But Ye isn’t just sharing his story with reporters. The event brought in students from Pewaukee High School to visit with the refugees.
The students are the same age but completely different life experience. It made an impact on Pewaukee sophomore Alex Lee.
“I think it was really interesting, I care a lot about what he has to say. It’s always something I’m interested in, the lives of others. I think it kind of just shows you have to care for your common man, no matter their religion, race, where they’re from,” Lee says.
And that’s what today is about, finding common ground and developing confidence. It’s a transformation Epstein sees in the classroom every day.
“I can have a student who comes in in ninth grade who knows absolutely no English, or very limited English” she says. “And by the time they’re graduating high school, they’re going to college. And oftentimes they’re the first person in their family who is going to college. And they are confident.”
“And to see that transformation, it’s amazing,” Epstein says.