Come as You Are
Newcomer Academy helps students balance the pressures of a new culture, language, and lifestyle.
February 7, 2020
Four first-year students walked through the hallway side by side, nudging each other as they laughed at their own jokes. One spoke in an Arabic accent to another student who replied in a thick French accent. The other two boys communicated with Wolof and Vietnamese accents — all of them speaking the same language but putting their own twist on it. Their varying backgrounds didn’t create a barrier. Rather, this journey was something that they shared.
“I am the king!” 18-year-old Gisubizo Ndayishimiye yelled with a grin. His friends turned their heads and laughed as he puffed his chest out.
Amused, 17-year-old Boubacar Dieng replied, “You are no king; I’m the king!”
Tesfalem Haile, 20, joined in on the banter as he spoke over them, “I am the oldest, I should be king!”
Hoang Nguyen, who was 15 and a bit more reserved, watched them from the side as a light chuckle escaped him.
These students come from different places around the world: Ndayishimiye from Burundi, Dieng from Guinea, Haile from Eritrea, and Nguyen from Vietnam. They immigrated to the United States last May, and continue to adapt to their new
life and a new language. But in that hallway moment, all the barriers broke down.
The sound of their voices echoed through the hallway as they conversed carelessly in this new language. Ndayishimiye, Dieng, Haile, and Nguyen all continuously apologized throughout the interview for their mispronunciations, but when they were together, they laughed off the imperfections. To them, that was okay — being able to learn this new language together was enough.
As the bell rang, students of Newcomer Academy flooded the hallways and greeted each other. Haile’s friends approached him with beaming faces and outstretched hands. They entered the classroom, divided themselves among their linguistic groups, and began conversations in different languages that united each of them.
Newcomer is a middle-through-high school in eastern Louisville’s Klondike neighborhood that is dedicated to helping newly-immigrated students become proficient in English as they adapt to their new environment. The school helps students up to age 21. Currently, the school enrolls 655 students who speak 22 different languages.
The school is also unique for giving English as a second language (ESL) learners the opportunity to be part of an accepting community which allows them to communicate in their language to their teachers while learning to speak English. The majority of the teachers at Newcomer either speak English as a second language or are fluent in multiple languages. This advantage helps break down the linguistic barrier between teachers and students.
That day in class, it was September — still early in the year. Scott Wade, a teacher at Newcomer, decided to arrange the students so that they were sitting next to someone who came to America by different means: some by boat, some by bus, and some by plane. In a Nigerian accent, a student shouted “mix and mingle” to her classmates as they got situated in their new seats. The students no longer had a sense of ease on their face as they looked at each other for what was to come next. However, it was only their third class of the day and there was no time to fret over old seats. They all had presentations to give, which included sharing their age, native country, languages they spoke, and dreams for the future.
Haile became particularly jittery once his slide appeared on the board. He made his way slowly to the front of the room, looking straight ahead and avoiding the eyes of his classmates. At the age of 20, he was an older student in the class. However, his interactions sows that it didn’t hinder his ability to form relationships with his classmates.
Haile is from a small East African country, Eritrea. He boarded a plane to Ethiopia with his stepsister to escape the wars that had torn his home country apart and immigrated to the United States after living in a refugee camp for five years.
“Every day we have wars and every time people die,” Haile said.
The Eritrean-Ethiopian war was the final straw; Haile knew he had to leave. The war started in 1998 and ended in 2000,
but the two countries didn’t officially agree to peace until 2018. Just as his own country overcame its struggles, Haile was determined to be triumphant in his own battle.
“You have to learn because you have to change your life,
no one can help you,” Haile said. “If I have to change my life, I have to learn.”
Newcomer offers classes that help Haile and other students learn the complexities of the English language and culture. Classes like Wade’s Explorers Program take place every Monday. Students learn about current global events, even activism like that of Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, both prominent youth activists. During one class, the students watched a video about Thunberg and Yousafzai, but slowed it down so that they could comprehend each word of the video. They watched attentively, their eyes widened as they learned about the different ways these young women have made a place for their voice in the world.
Every student has their struggles, each one of them learning at a different speed.
Still, they were all newcomers, all of them tackling this new language together. The Explorers Program offers a place where students can focus on the direction they are headed during their next two years at Newcomer, while still appreciating the countries they originate from. During those two years, the students will gain many new life experiences and opportunities.
After school programs organized through the YMCA aim to create a welcoming and educational environment for Newcomer students. Volunteers and the YMCA staff organize soccer, basketball, and tutoring services for students. In addition, teachers like Wade and the current principal, Gwen Snow, play a part in the success of their students. In the past, Snow had been an art teacher at Newcomer and connected with her students through interactive activities, rather than traditional language conventions. One strategy Snow used to connect with and understand her students was a storyboard.
The activity involves “asking them to draw a storyboard of the events that happened, and have some different images that go with it. Under the images, they can start to generate words underneath,” Snow said.
Being able to form these narratives helps bridge the gap between students’ native languages and the English they’re learning. Many students who attend Newcomer come from Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Tanzania, and Rwanda, but no matter where they are from, they all have a story to tell.
That’s no less true for Abdurazak Ahmed, a Newcomer student from Kenya. Before coming to Newcomer, Abdurazak was nervous about handling the pressure of learning a new language and being singled out for not knowing English. But at Newcomer, Ahmed had teachers who helped him learn English and further develop his speaking abilities. He recalled the different methods teachers used in his native country versus here, in America. In Kenya, he explained. School was not prioritized, classes were small, and students had to pay for their education. Students waited for their teacher to enter the classroom as opposed to teachers waiting on the students. However, at Newcomer, Ahmed said has grown close to his fellow classmates and teachers.
“One thing we all have in common is that we are like brothers and sisters here, and even the teachers are like our parents. Newcomer is the place where I found myself and I feel comfortable,” Ahmed said.
Newcomer has helped provide opportunities for students since its start in 2008. Former Newcomer student, Nini Mohamed, also from Kenya, described his own experiences as a student there that first year. At the time, the school was still operating out of Shawnee High School. Mohamed was only at Newcomer for six months because of his rapid improvement, quickly transferring to Waggener High School. Even before starting at Newcomer, he remembers the feeling of getting his first backpack, something many kids have long forgotten.
“I used to go over to the Kentucky Refugee Ministry building, and what they do is they prepare you and make sure you have a backpack,” Mohamed said. “They make sure you have books, pencils, and as new as I was, it’s exciting to get a backpack of your own. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I finally have a backpack!’ (See “Kickin’ It in Kentucky” on page 60 for more about Kentucky Refugee Ministries.)
Mohamed recently self-published a book called “The African in America” and is working toward his second book. He said that his first book’s purpose was to bring people together — specifically the African community.
“Since I published my book, I have helped four people write their own books, and that makes me feel good. It’s like you’re writing your own story but helping other people write their stories as well,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed believes Newcomer was an integral part of his own story. What he learned there helped launch his work as an author and motivational speaker. His achievements represent a fulfilled promise for the school, to connect students, bring them together, and lead them to bigger places. Though Mohamed, Ahmed, and Haile’s origins spread far and wide from different East African countries, the school has given them the tools to succeed in America, and has been vital in defining who they are growing to be; Mohamed an author, Ahmed a mechanical engineer, and Haile a doctor.
“In this book, I would like to share with you my life in between Africa and America,” Mohamed wrote in the second edition of his book. He goes on to say how “it is amazing how they love this country enough to do whatever it takes to get here” — illuminating the strenuous journey of making a once foreign environment a place they can call home, a place they can come as they are.