Coaching refugee girls determined my career path

Team work
Dena and her team

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017: Knowing refugees determined my career path

If you were like me, even after graduating college, you still didn’t know what you wanted to do with the rest of your life. I had a degree, a mountain of debt, and the real world seemed daunting. I decided to move to Washington, DC, to serve a year as an Americorps member. I wanted to do something that could make a difference. I ended up working for an organization that served immigrant and refugee youth. I didn’t know it at the time, but that work would determine the trajectory of my career and forever change my life.

Career path

One part of my job in DC was coaching a girl’s soccer team. The team was made up of elementary school girls, most of whom were newly arrived to the country. The team was an excited group of girls, to say the least. I’m not sure who did more of the running, them or me, but their zest for life was contagious. Two of the girls I remember fondly are Tiffany and Leslie. They were vivacious young girls and always had smiles on their faces despite the private struggles they were going through. Struggles of being separated from their families and trying to navigate a new country at such a young age.

Coaching the girls, and getting to know them and their challenges, opened my eyes to a world that I knew nothing about. I had the privilege of being born in this country. I didn’t have to worry about where my next meal came from or fear for my safety.

In supporting the girls, I saw firsthand the lack of resources we have in this country to help refugees and newcomers. Tiffany and Leslie taught me many valuable life lessons. They showed me the resilience, bravery, and strength one must have to leave one’s home country and resettle in a new one.

Through mentoring and supporting the girls in their new lives, I realized I wanted to do more work like this in the long term. So I started taking steps towards becoming a teacher. I am now a high school teacher in California, and a majority of my students and their families have immigrated to the United States. Although I have long lost contact with Tiffany and Leslie, I continually bring the lessons they taught me into my classroom. My experiences with the girls opened my eyes to the realities and struggles refugees and newcomers face. I am more sensitive to and understanding of their needs, and this has allowed me to bring more empathy into my classroom.

People often fear what they don’t know. In my classroom, I create many activities where students get to know each other’s backgrounds and experiences. They are able to understand the value newcomers bring to our community. When I am able to get my students to see the struggles and challenges their classmates endure, they begin to understand that, despite our differences and our backgrounds, we are all human beings who deserve to feel safe and heard in this world.

In honor of World Refugee Day 2017, the Refugee Center Online is collecting stories of how refugees make our lives better.

The Refugee Center Online believes newcomers make our country a better place. Refugee resettlement is not just the moral or ethical thing to do – it benefits us and our communities as well. These stories from individuals around the country show how knowing, teaching, working with, and perhaps most importantly, being friends with, refugees have improved the lives of Americans.

Refugees shaking hands

World Refugee Day June 20, 2017

Find events in your community and learn how you can celebrate World Refugee Day 2017.

Learn more
About Dena Staggs
Dena Staggs is a public school teacher who loves to read and travel. Dena grew up in the Midwest and now calls the West Coast home.