The UNHCR High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres, has identified the Iraqi refugee crisis to be “the most significant displacement in the Middle East” since the dislocation of Palestinians 1948. A study report entitled "Iraqi Refugee Crises in the US" identifies approximately 25,000 of the 50,000 refugees resettled in the US since the 2003 Iraqi war have been placed in the city El Cajon (Georgetown Law School, p. 11). Strikingly, 50% of the refugees resettled in San Diego are children attending local elementary, middle and high schools.
The city of El Cajon, located in East San Diego County, is home to tens of thousands of refugees, primarily from Iraq. The number of Iraqi refugees enrolled in the local school district has more than doubled in the past several years with:
• 758 new refugees enrolled in 2007;
• 1,380 new refugees enrolled in 2008;
• 1,738 new refugees enrolled in 2009;
• 4,702 EL (30% of CVUSD student population) as per March 2010; and,
• 1,543 of the 4,702 are year 2010 new comers (10% of the CVUSD student population).
California has the fastest-growing group of English learning students in the nation, while San Diego County has the fastest-growing group of English learners in California. Moreover, out of all the children in the Cajon Valley Union School District, 5 out of 10 English learners speak Spanish and 4 out of 10 English learners speak Arabic/Chaldean/Kurdish (Iraqi languages). The rate of refugee families arriving in San Diego show no sign of slowing down with the United States expecting to admit close to 20,000 Iraqi refugees in 2011 (Office of Refugee Resettlement).
The expansion of YALLA activities would directly affect this influx of refugees. More specifically, the 150 YALLA coaches, refugee children, and hundreds of family members who this program impacts will benefit from YALLA’s services, as well as serve as a catalyst to reach more children and impact the well-being of the community. In addition to the participants already enrolled in the program, YALLA indirectly affects the community at large, providing positive options for youth and in turn creating a healthier environment for the community.
While Cajon Valley Union School District educators and the state of California emphasize advancing the education of these refugees, YALLA works toward building the social and emotional foundations of this population. Because of their experiences with war, the refugee youth often suffer from mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The emotional dynamics of the refugees usually manifest as aggressive behavior during school, resulting in even greater alienation. With respect to a holistic treatment of these struggling youth, one of YALLA’s collaborations is with the Chaldean Middle Eastern Center (CMEC), a refugee organization that provides mental health assessments for children who were tortured in war. CMEC refers these survivors of torture to YALLA’s program to palliate some of their pain and suffering. Meanwhile, other refugee youth who have not been formally diagnosed, misbehave during school, a display of frustration with adjusting to a new language and unfamiliar cultural norms. At other times, the children assume a quiet role, staying speechless all day due to their lack of understanding English. This often taxes a child’s self-confidence.