In New York, over-enrolled school offers hope to migrant children
July 7, 2023 11:15 AM
Last year siblings Eliezer, 10, and Elaiza, 12 traveled by bus and foot through eight countries from Venezuela to the United States.
Today they proudly hold graduation certificates from a New York school that has welcomed more than 100 migrant children but is now running out of space.
"I'm so proud," their mother, Yeisy Sira, 33, tells AFP, after the traditional ceremony that marks the end of the academic year at their elementary public school in Manhattan.
"After two months he learnt to read and now he can make sentences in English," she adds, her eyes glinting with emotion as she talks about youngest child Eliezer who will start middle school in September.
"It wasn't easy to get here, but we got here. School is the beginning of many good things that can happen to all of us," Sira adds.
Sira, her husband and three children are among tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived in New York City this year after fleeing poverty, political instability and violence in Latin America, mainly from Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua and Honduras.
The unprecedented arrivals -- 80,000 asylum seekers since the spring of 2022, according to officials -- have stretched resources in the metropolis, where dozens of hotels have been converted into emergency accommodation centers.
They have also posed a challenge for the public school system, the largest in the country with one million pupils, 72 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged and eligible for social assistance, according to the city's education department.
PS 145 The Bloomingdale School, where Eliezer and Elaiza attend, seems well-equipped to deal with its new students.
Located in a predominantly Hispanic area of the Upper West Side it boasts bilingual English-Spanish and English-Russian teaching programs, meaning it can also welcome children from families fleeing the war in Ukraine.
"Some of our own children that are sitting right in front of you, many of them have seen things that you and I can never imagine," says principal Natalia Garcia during her end-of-year speech, between the raising of the United States flag and the presentation of the diplomas.
More than 18,000 students living in temporary accommodation have enrolled in New York's public schools since last summer, according to the city, which has released additional funds of $2,000 per child.
The number of pupils at PS 145 soared to more than 530 in 2022-2023 from around 400 the previous year.
Most of the new arrivals did not speak any English. Many of their families arrived in New York without any resources, including winter clothes, and sleep in hotel rooms where cooking hot meals is impossible.
- 'More support' -
"Many of these students who are refugees and asylum seekers were already displaced for years sometimes. Some of the students have never been to school," said Naveed Hasan, chairman of a parents' committee and a member of the city's education board.
The school, teachers, and parents have rallied round.
"We're just trying to make sure that we can help all of these students as much as possible," Hasan added.
Sira said her family arrived with nothing and started from scratch and that the school organized the paperwork to get her children enrolled.
"They took care of everything. As soon as we arrived, the children started their schooling," Sira recalls.
Hasan, who himself arrived from Pakistan in the early 1980s, said the school was glad to help but it is now "significantly over-enrolled."
"There is a huge issue with availability of classroom space for the kids," he told AFP.
"All of the spaces that were not classrooms: the music room, the science room, the art room, the library, the TV studio, have all been converted into other uses, mostly more small classes to be able to help the kids," Hasan added.
The school has asked for more space from the city which says it is working "to ensure that newcomer students have what they need in our public schools."
"We need more support from the city to make sure that we can continue to do this work over the next year," concluded Hasan.