Can you speak English now, Mama?

“Can you speak English now, Mama?” This is the question I asked my mom when she got her citizenship approved when I was 6 years old. Everyone in my family, except myself, could be classified as either a refugee or an immigrant. As I have grown up surrounded by refugees, I have watched all the challenges, perks, and feelings that come with being a refugee, particularly found in America. Even having grown up and been exposed to refugees, known as my family, I still do not know what goes through their mind. This fifteen-year exposure is what got me asking ‘why?’.

My mom’s vocabulary English to Arabic

My mom’s vocabulary notes: English to Arabic

“Why did my family flee?”

“Why did my family choose the United States as their new home?”

I think I can speak for many people when I say these are questions they want to be answered regarding all refugees.

However, no matter how many times one asks this question, it will never be answered accurately enough to provide long-term solutions. As a teenager watching the news and the refugee crisis worsening, I felt weak and incapable of helping the refugees. However, despite my minuscule power, I knew that the key to answering this question included not asking it in the first place, and instead ask ‘how?’. How can I stop the refugee crisis?

My family fled from Iraq from the Gulf War of 1990, escaping to Sweden where they found asylum. My father continued his medical education in America where I was born, in the small town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Here, where I have lived my whole life, I have not been exposed to much. The most I have been exposed to was a farm tractor, typical high-school stereotypes, and conservative views on certain topics. Because of this, I feel that everything goes one way, and only that one way.

My parents’ English test book

“If they can’t speak English, then they don’t belong here…” I hear citizens of my town say.

I constantly hear this and have heard it so much that I fear I may almost believe it is true. But I want to believe that it isn’t, that there is a way for refugees to live in the United States, like my family.

Because I have such little exposure, I have been passionate about looking outside of the small town that I live in. I am the only rising 10th grader Arab at Riverbend High School. I took advantage of this tiny statistic to start making change. I wanted to start looking outside the borders.

I started by looking at a city halfway across the world. In January of 2016-2017, my two older siblings traveled to Thessaloniki, Greece to volunteer at a Syrian refugee camp. They came back from the trip sharing eye-opening pictures and stories. Since then, I have found my starting point outside my city’s borders. With this. I decided to spend my freshman year of high school conducting a year-long research project on the mental health of refugees, and plan on conducting a year-long research project each of the next three years I am at this high school.

My project this year focused on different themes that are associated with negatively impacting the brain of a refugee before, during, and after their move. I choose mental health for the main reason that the topic does not have enough light shed on it. Refugee resettlement programs and assistance programs around the world do not provide as much mental health care as they should, due to many different barriers. There are not enough trained workers, there is no funding, and it is not seen as a true issue. This goes along with my first theme, that there is a lack of access to health care, leading to many different problems bringing violence to camps and unwillingness to solve problems.

Next, I found that refugees mental health is affected by the county’s citizens or legal system willingness to accept them. This goes hand-in-hand with the refugees’ ability to find a proper job, proper social interaction, and proper living, as they had before. Those against the acceptance of refugees believe that refugees bring an economic burden by taking up jobs or using government. These people start out on the top of their society, going straight to the bottom, with regards to credentialing for their career, friends, or even the size of their house. Affecting children as well, these lead to the negative view of refugees kids bringing a burden on the economy, bringing bad influences, and more.

The most important of these themes, which I want to emphasize on my project for this year, is the language barrier. Language is a large, if not the biggest occurring issue for refugees. The language barrier that refugees experience not only prevents them from obtaining a job or seeking health care, but it causes the mental health issues that make resettling difficult. These issues include neurosis, anxiety, depression, and more. When refugees are traveling and are unable to communicate their wants or needs, this leads to the halt in the development of friendships for both adults and children. These families facing these barriers wish to go back home or start over when they feel that their language and identity are slowly washing away with the new language, negative attention, and new atmosphere. Suicide, drug, or even alcohol abuse can be found in the isolation that refugees face. The way to ensure that refugees do not face this isolation is simply to ensure that the refugees know the language of their new home.

The reason why it is important to make sure these refugees are safe is that they are critical to our global development. Not only from research did I learn this, but through my own life experiences. My father was able to settle in this small city, making his own medical practice and starting all over again. The area we live in was in need of a primary health care practice, and the refugees that are “bringing an economic and cultural burden” provided basic needs for them.

With this, I want to create a product that goes along with my research for this year. Since language/cultural barriers were found to be the prominent cause of problems when refugees move, my goal is to create an online platform, safe for teens and adults, to teach each other important languages, provide moral support, and address their mental health issues. We take the programs of The Language Project and provide to the whole world and make it more readily available. By teaching the languages in a fun, safe manner, we are preparing the refugees for the world outside of camps so they can accomplish whatever they please. This an undertaking that I believe will be difficult, but important and worth it in the long run. I want to make it safe, easy, and fun, just as the Language Project’s programs are. I would love to join and participate in what The Language Project has to offer, however, as a young person in the US, it is difficult to make it to the events. If we could create a program online, it would help spread the Language Project to those that cannot physically be at translation slams, cultural mediation workshops, and more.

By teaching refugees English, we are giving them the key to the world’s problems. They will be the world’s next greatest leaders, mathematicians, scientists, and who knows what else. I am working on starting this as soon as possible and trying to find the most feasible way to undertake this task. I want to stop hearing my teachers, peers, and neighbors explaining to me that these refugees must know English. I now want to make it possible for them to know English. I want them to be able to pursue their dreams with the same chances as me or my classmates. I believe that language is the only way to do this.

We could use the most efficient means of translation and make it fun to ensure that refugees can leave refugee camps to join the world of language and communicate efficiently to have a fresh start, as well as continue the life they were living. They will be able to leave the shame they felt with the label of “refugee” and start wearing the label with pride by tackling the language barrier.

I am Rana Ansari, a rising sophomore at Riverbend High School. I am interested in both science and helping the world’s refugees facing crisis today. I have volunteered at Primary and Urgent Care, my father’s medical practice, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, as well as a biology lab at George Washington University in Washington D.C. I am learning Arabic, Spanish, and studying classical Latin. I plan on graduating high school in 2021 to pursue a career in medicine. My hobbies include playing the piano, the violin, running, and (trying) to save the world!