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Guest blog: Afterschool programs change the lives of young refugees

By Guest Blogger

By Susanna Pradhan, an alumna of ourBRIDGE for KIDS in Charlotte, N.C. Susanna is a rising sophomore at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attended the Afterschool for All Challenge in Washington, D.C. as part of the Youth Track. 

In 1998, I was born to a Bhutanese refugee family in Sanischare Camp in Eastern Nepal. As refugees, we were isolated from the rest of the world and deprived of our basic rights. We were abused at work, making less than a dollar a day.

Growing up in the slums of Nepal, my only hope for a better future was through education. My father was a teacher and my mother the pharmacist, albeit an informal one, in our camp. My parents were respected individuals in our camp and from a young age I wanted to become a respected individual as well. Seeing my mother cure the sick sparked my interest in the medical field. I dreamed of becoming a doctor and carrying on my mother’s healing work.

Everything changed when my family was given the chance to come to the United States. After a lengthy process, we arrived in Charlotte, N.C., in April of 2009. In August, I started my first school in America as a sixth grader at Eastway Middle School. It was only then, when I was faced with the reality of life in the United States, that I realized how horrible our Nepal conditions really were. America was living in a future so advanced it was unimaginable. There are so many details of everyday life that many take for granted; because of my experience in Nepal, I can appreciate the details that many overlook.

My transition from Nepal to the U.S. was extremely difficult. I was immersed into standard classes instead of English as Second Language classes. The language barrier and the culture shock almost felt tangible. In sixth grade, I was bullied because I did not fit the “mold” the other student were expecting. Everything I did (or did not do) seemed to be a problem. This harassment took quite a toll on me and left me ashamed of my culture, my family, our lack of English proficiency, and how we were not “American” enough.

Gradually, however, I started to rediscover my identity. The ourBRIDGE for KIDS program, which is a non-profit afterschool organization that helps tutor immigrant and refugee students, was pivotal in helping me find my identity in an unfamiliar place. The program helped me improve in English and other school subjects and exposed me to extracurriculars and different aspects of American culture through field trips and camping. It provided me a safe space where I could thrive academically and socially without fearing judgement from others. Interacting with intelligent and compassionate tutors and volunteers from all walks of life at ourBRIDGE made my experience worthwhile.

Although I only attended for two years, this program taught me one of the most valuable lessons in my life: to accept and embrace myself. My diverse background and identity is something that distinguishes me and allows me to have a unique perspective. I don’t have to assimilate and give up any part of myself in order to become successful.

This new belief also motivated me to enter an academic scholarship competition in middle school, in which I won first place. It meant that my tuition for all four years of college would be covered! This served as a catalyst for my life moving forward and the interest I once had back in our camp about becoming a doctor came to life again.

In pursuit of this success, I have been involved in many activities in and out of school throughout the past few years. I have experienced firsthand how effective ourBRIDGE is in assisting young immigrant students during their most critical years of growth, so for the past few years I have been volunteering as an assistant tutor and translator. I’ve also made it my goal to go back and volunteer this summer and every summer while I am in college. Outside of ourBRIDGE, I’ve taught ESL and citizenship classes to elderly people in the Bhutanese community, hosted a high school graduation ceremony, served as an advocate at the local level for the refugees living in the Charlotte community, and shared my culture through speeches, dance performances, and art.

ourBRIDGE and the experiences I have had because of the program have shaped me into who I am today: a young woman who is determined, confident, and not afraid to stand up for what she believes is right. I am constantly seeking new opportunities to challenge myself to learn, grow, and stretch my horizon to become a better leader and, most importantly, a better human being.