I never really talked about this before, but I volunteered last summer as a tutor at an international high school in Brooklyn. There are about seven or eight international high schools in the country and they're set up to accept students that have recently immigrated to the United States.
It was really challenging to be a tutor (I can't imagine being a teacher) because not only are the students from different countries, but they're all at different levels when it comes to speaking English. In one class there was a student from Mexico who had been here a month, another from Yemen who had been here six months, and another from Sierra Leone who had been here for a couple of years. All in all, the class I tutored was made up from students from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Mali, Tibet, China, Philippines, Yemen, and Pakistan—and I know I left some out. What's frustrating is that you can't stop the lesson to teach them English nor simplify it, because at the end of the day they're going to get the same high school diploma as everyone else in this country. So despite their level, they had to read Shakespeare, because that's what you read in a Junior-level English class.
Anyway, the stories about how and why most of them came to the US are really tragic. The boy from Sierra Leone was a refugee with a really violent childhood (think Blood Diamond.) Another boy from Senegal watched his mother die in a fire and flew to the US the very next day. He had been here for about a year when I met him and had never had any therapy to help deal with what happened. I'd get tears in my eyes whenever I saw him because, even though he was 16, I could still see the little boy inside of him. It made me think of my nephew, and then my sister.
Although their lives are better now that they're here, they're not amazing by any means. A lot of them live in one bedroom apartments with their entire family. There was a group of girls who, even thought they didn't need summer school, asked if they could come anyway because being at school was better than being at home. One of these girls was a refugee from Tibet. She always had her nose in chick-lit books, so I brought her a big stack of YA books that I had lying around my apartment. You should have seen her face when she got them... she was dumbfounded. "For me?" It was like no one had ever given her that many things before. There was another boy who was late every day and would fall asleep in class because he had to work through the night at the bodega that his family owned. He couldn't make it to school on time because he didn't get off until 9am and he still had to go home and change. I'm not sure when he was supposed to sleep. (In class, apparently.)
I have dozens of stories like this.
I was so profoundly impacted by the kids I met that summer. Meeting them put faces on the tragedies we hear about around the world. With that said, please donate to a reputable organization and help the people of Haiti. Do it for Donald, my favorite student from Port-au-Prince who worked at Macy's and wanted to be a movie star. He was such a wonderful kid... flamboyantly gay and truly hilarious. To think of him still living there right now breaks my heart. I'm so happy he's safe.