4 January

“Please Stay In School.” Behind The Scenes, Playing God With A Refugee Child

by Jon Katz

I’ve been working with refugee families and children for nearly five years now, and the hardest thing for me to see is when a gifted refugee child gives up on school or college.

This happens when a child or his or her family is simply overwhelmed by the staggering difficulties of being a refugee in America in 2021,

It’s hard for most people to imagine how difficult a process this acclimation can be for kids who arrive straight out of hell. There are language issues, social issues, financial issues, working issues, health issues, trauma issues.

One of my proudest accomplishments these past few years has been getting eight gifted refugee children out of difficult situations into excellent private schools with full tuition grants.

All eight are doing well. Two are graduating this year.

I am having a difficult and honest and painful discussion with a young woman who is a student at a school in the Albany area. She wants to leave school, abandon her plans – and the school’s wish – that she go to college, get a job anywhere she can, and get her own apartment.

She asked me for financial help in getting an apartment on her own.

She has a number of issues with her family, is living in close quarters, and while the school is certain they can to get her a full scholarship at a good school – a community college at first, including a free dorm, meals, and all expenses covered – she is determined, she says, to move along right now and get her own place.

She’s had a dozen meetings with teachers and school officials. They are urging her to stay. She is very close to graduating.

But life is difficult for her. The English language issues are too difficult, her family situation is too tense, the financial realities too pressing.

She yearns to be independent, and live her own life. Years in refugee camps will do that for you.

I am ready to help her, the school is ready to help her, she has a mentor willing to help her. But I don’t want to pay for her to leave school. I’ve seen the results of that too often.

I think it’s unethical for me to enable that.

All of us have too often seen the holes some of these very needy children – and adults –  fall into in America, and can’t get out of.

Fast food jobs don’t pay living wages, and these kids who abandon school so often fall into debt and can’t catch up. I’ve left more than one crowded apartment in tears.

America is not an easy or simple – or inexpensive –  place to live in right now. I am very fond of this student, she writes beautifully and is independent and strong-willed.  We talk to one another often, she’s interested in writing.

She’s been through more than any child should endure.

I have helped her and her family before and she has asked me again for some help. I am not comfortable helping her if she abandons college or has no way of paying for her independent life. That is not an easy decision.

I’ve seen the consequences of that too often, and it’s my duty to make sure the money I offer goes where it can do the most good.

I know a score of refugee children who would cut off a finger to get to college. But I have no wish or intention to pressure this very gifted child. It is her life. And I haven’t given up – neither has Bishop Maginn. It’s not going to be simple or easy.

The refugees who make it get to a trade school, community college, or four-year university. In America, that’s where options come from. I’ve seen these people and families struggle so hard to get free of debts and obligations.

It is hard. There isn’t enough money in the world to give all these good people the help they deserve.

Often, I have to be the “no” man. It isn’t fun. It’s much more fun to say yes.

Otherwise, too many refugees end up cleaning hotel rooms and mopping hospital floors for all of their working lives. Or working at McDonald’s. The lucky ones get to Amazon Warehouses, they pay $20 an hour and get help with tuition.

C— keeps saying people want to control her, that’s not my interest. No one controls me, I don’t control anyone else.

My feeling is she needs time to figure things out. For now, we are at a standoff.

Below is our exchange this morning. I am not comfortable using her name or the name of the school for good reasons.

___

“Jon: I’m just going, to be honest, and straight and forward I appreciate you guys trying to look out for me and give me some options that u think are good for me but all my life I’ve been controlled by everyone and everybody. I want to make my own choices for once and I’m sorry but college is not going to be good for me because I know myself I will fail. I tried so hard to accept the fact that yeah maybe I should try college but every time I think about it, it doesn’t make me happy it’s not where I want to go. When I asked for help from u I don’t want u to think I’m begging you or anything because I was never the person to beg for help people always offered to help me and if you can’t help me unless I go to college that’s totally fine and I’m not going to work my whole life in fast food.

I’m going to work at fast food just to save money for a car so I can get a better job and right now for me it’s all about surviving yeah maybe I am impatient it’s because my whole life I’ve been going through a lot u might not get where I’m coming from and that’s okay I had a roommate …but she doesn’t want to move out anymore she made so many promises to me and just gave up on me the last minute. People never stay by my side so I have to do this by myself and that’s okay because I will be something big in life one day and I believe in myself and that’s why I want to move out so desperately I want to start all over again I hope u understand where I’m coming from again thank you.”

 

This is my reply:

“C—-, thanks for the message. You are certainly no beggar, but you did ask me for help, and like you, I believe in being honest.  I’m afraid when people ask me for help I have to ask questions and make decisions.

I can assure you that I have no desire to control you, it’s not what I do, nor do I let anybody control me. My wish for you is that you make your own decisions all through your life, I think that is what we all want for you.

For the past five years, I’ve been working with refugee families and young people offering help when I can.
Nothing has been harder for me to see than people who get stuck in holes they can’t get out of because they just don’t have enough money to live comfortably in America, especially when they abandon their education.
I see it often, and it breaks my heart every time. It’s not always easy to look back and change direction.
Time and time again, I see people in poor paying jobs overwhelmed by rent, insurance, heating, taxes, doctor’s bills, electric bills, and on and on.
I can tell you just owning a car sucks up the weekly salaries of many people. And then, there is not enough money in the world to pull them up. I’ve shed a lot of tears over that.
A month ago, I helped a family pay their overdue electric bill and keep their lights on. The next day, their car insurance was canceled, and the day after that, they were threatened with eviction because their rent was overdue. 
Both of them work so hard, they just can’t keep up. They are good and honest people. They both clean floors at a local hospital. The federal government used to help refugees out for a long time after they came to America,  almost all benefits have been cut or eliminated by the Trump administration.
Sadly, it is not simple to live in America. Once you get stuck in that hole, it’s hard to get out. The people with the best choices are those with education, they have the best options in life and seem to do the best, whether it’s college, community college, or trade school. Almost anything worth doing here requires some education.McDonald’s is a stepping stone to nowhere.
I know there good jobs that pay well, if that’s your path, then blessings to you. It’s your life, no one can make decisions for you.
 When we first met, you talked about becoming a lawyer so you could help people, and I thought that was a beautiful and exciting goal. I can’t imagine where you got the idea that you couldn’t handle college.
You are very impressive and can do whatever you wish to do. I’d hire you as my lawyer in a flash.
I am not here to argue with you are your choices. It’s your life, and you should do what you feel you need to do. You don’t owe me any explanations.
If there is any rational way for me to help you I will, but I also have to make choices about where the money I raise goes, and my decision is always to put it where it can do the most good, and not to just give it away. The people who donate deserve that.  I want it to go to people who have reasonable plans for their lives, and who can see beyond just a few months.
Those are not easy choices for me to make, just as your decisions are not easy for you to make. I am not God,  I hate playing God. I just have to follow my instincts. I am uncomfortable enabling you to leave school and abandon college. It is absolutely your right to do so if you wish, of course.
In this work, I know and admire your teacher. She cares deeply about her students and has been helping them for more years than you have been alive.
I trust her completely and follow her judgment absolutely.
My wish is that the two of you get together and come to some common understanding, whether it be getting a good job or getting to a good school.
I hope we can get to a place where I can help you.
If it’s possible and realistic for me and/or your mentor to help. We will be happy to help. With much respect and appreciation for you, I am your friend Jon.”
So this student will meet once again with school officials who are pleading with her to stay in school and graduate. They want to tell her about a community college that will give her a full scholarship, including room and board – she can work if she wishes – and they will help her with her language issues.
This is a tough one for me.
I know how smart she is, how much she has been through – she has every right to feel abandoned, even bitter – and it isn’t for me to tell her how to live.
I appreciate her independence.
But it is my responsibility is to decide who to help and how.
I would be so happy to help her. I know the people who support this work don’t ever get to see too much of the stuff behind the curtain. This goes on all the time. I thought I should share it with you.
This refugee work depends on donations and contributions from the outside. We need food gift cards from Wal-Mart to help families suffering from food insecurity and personal needs. You can buy the cards in any amount, please send them to me, Jon Katz, 2502 State Route 22, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816.
( I am also distributing gift cards to three aides at the Mansion Assisted Care Facility, they need help feeding their families due to illness or other circumstances.)
You can also donate directly to Jon Katz via Paypal, [email protected] Or you can send a check to Jon Katz, Refugee Fund, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Thanks.

7 Comments

  1. Oh Jon….I want to call out to her aand say “Noooooo! “If she takes a crap job and gets a car she will spend all her money on insurance…does she know what it costs? And what kind of dump will she live in with the money she will make especially now? If she has an offer for college plus dorm and she can work…..that is such a gift! I would have given my eye teeth for that and by all accounts she is smart, so she will do well.
    I know she feels she’s been controlled all her short life, what teenager hasn’t been? What she suffered I know is unimaginable but that is all the more reason she needs to bite the bullet for at least a couple more years and then she will be in a better position to decide. With Covid this is no time to start over. If she’s in a dorm she will have a lot more control already. If she quits she will be a slave all her life to bills. Maybe she needs it said to her in such a harsh way and I know because she has suffered no one wants to do that to her. Sorry, I am just typing emotionally, so it’s probably not very good. I let my life get messed up by getting in debt and as you know it isn’t easy to get out from under. I do hope you guys can talk hard sense to her. Tell her she will have a long life to regret a bad choice . She probably feels because of what she’s been through that she’s all grown up. Damn. Why is it always so hard? Good luck, Jon

  2. John, this is such hard and stressful work; I have been in similar situations. I am so glad you are careful with your health and have good people at the school that you can trust and work with . . . remember to distance yourself a bit, you can do it and still be effective and loving – you seem to be really good at thinking your efforts through and keeping a big overview. Blessings as you help these young people who have been through so much!

  3. Jon, you are entirely correct in your assessment of this situation. Leaving high school before graduating will close all the doors to higher education and interesting, well paying jobs. Most employers will not even hire a person without a high school diploma these days (other than part time jobs in retail or fast food). I hope this young woman will listen to reason (and experience) and make the right choice. It will spare her so much difficulty and disappointment down the road. Once those opportunity doors close, they are so very hard to get open again.

  4. Hi Jon,
    Well, on the surface, this is a sticky one. Do you know what precipitated this young woman’s announcement? I don’t but, after 24 years as a high school guidance counselor, in very diverse schools in FL, I can guess. When promising young women suddenly disclose a major change in life goals, educational goals, etc., there is usually a boyfriend, boy, man, etc behind their decision. I strongly suspect a “boyfriend” or a significant male figure is behind this sudden change of heart. Undoubtedly, this male figure is older and wants a sexual partner, someone who can earn money , someone who has transportation, someone he can manipulate, control, and use. Pregnancies typically ensue and, at that point, the young woman is full of regret and left to raise a child alone or with parental help.

    1. I don’t know Susan, that isn’t my turf to investigate. Her teachers know her well and they will guide her. They can’t force her.

    2. I don’t know, Susan; that isn’t my turf to investigate. Her teachers know her well, and they will guide her. They can’t force her.

  5. Dear Jon, I apologize for offering advice, but I have a couple of questions: what grade is your student in? Has she ever visited a college campus (–its hard to imagine going to college if you’ve never been on one)? What colleges have programs to assist refugee children? There are lots of programs to help students in her situation: low income, first-generation, academic need. Has she talked to a school counselor or a college advisor? They would be award of any programs to help her. I agree with your above commenters: Dropping out of school and incurring debts creates real setbacks that will take her even more time and money to recover from. I wish you both well.

    1. Thanks Molly, it’s good advice, but not for me. I’m not a teacher or guidance counselor. I don’t make decisions, I support the decisions others make. Her teachers are loving and VERY experienced at this, I trust them completely to know what needs to be done. They are working very intensely with her.

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