CHICAGO — On a cold, gray Saturday morning last winter, Salamat Khan Bin Jalil Khan sat behind the wheel of his battered 1995 Honda Civic and warmed up the sputtering engine for his 22-mile trip to work.
The 19-year-old refugee from Myanmar had been awake for hours helping his sister with chores, including an early morning run to the laundromat. Now, he faced a 10-hour shift at a fast-food restaurant in a suburban strip mall, grilling chicken and dousing it in a spicy Piri-Piri sauce. He could use the time to prepare for final exams at Roger C. Sullivan High School, but family and work obligations — not to mention sheer exhaustion — once again interfered.
The tired young man had traveled more than 8,000 miles to find himself on this stretch of Illinois highway. Along the way, Salamat, a member of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim community, had watched neighbors’ homes being burned to the ground and fled his homeland in a crammed truck — all while trying to complete an education that has always felt just out of reach.
Between the ages of 14 and 18, he missed nearly four years of schooling while his family lived in Malaysia. Even after arriving two years ago in Chicago — where about 1,300 Rohingya refugees now live — Salamat missed crucial months of school so that he can help support his family, including sending money to his parents in Myanmar. “I have to start a new life in America, but I also have to support my parents,” Salamat says. “There’s just so much on my shoulders.”
Salamat faces a pressure that’s common to older teenage male immigrant students, who frequently drop out of school to work full time. “It doesn’t faze these students but it breaks our hearts,” says Sarah Quintenz, who heads the English language learners program at Sullivan High. This is particularly true for Burmese refugees who struggle more than other immigrant groups with mastering English and complete bachelor’s degrees at lower rates, according to a 2017 report from the Migration Policy Institute.
Nationwide, graduation rates for students with limited English skills — considered a proxy for immigrant and refugee students — are far lower than for native English speakers: 67 percent compared to a national average of 84 percent. Salamat’s story — one defined by financial hardship, familial obligation and a lack of school support — offers an important glimpse at why.
Grateful for the safety and opportunities of his new country, Salamat dreams of going to college. He also dreams of bringing his parents to Chicago. But for the time being, it often feels like those two goals compete, forcing him to make a heart-wrenching choice: Support his family. Or go to school.
Mass exodus from Myanmar to refugee in the U.S.
Salamat was born in a small farming village that his family knows as Aung Tine, located in Myanmar’s impoverished Rakhine State on the western coast of the country. His father’s family had tended rice paddies there for generations. At the age of 5, Salamat traveled to Yangon, the country’s largest city, where he lived with an aunt and attended a higher-quality public school.
“My parents cannot read or write beautifully, but they know the value of education,” Salamat says.
His life in Yangon was quiet and productive. Salamat became fluent in Burmese. Most older Rohingya Muslims solely speak Rohingya, an oral language that lacks a standardized written script. On weekdays “it was only about study, study, study,” Salamat recalls. “Saturday, Sunday, I go hang out with my friends.”
Usually, Salamat’s visits home to Aung Tine were restful breaks. But late in the spring of 2012, the 13-year-old arrived to find a village transformed by fear.
Longstanding disputes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine had resurfaced, bringing an eruption of violence, including the torching of thousands of homes. In Aung Tine, families forbid their children from playing outdoors. Most adults stopped venturing to the river to fish.
The violence intensified over the summer. Buddhist mobs tossed flaming torches into houses on the fringes of the village, Salamat recalls. He often joined in efforts to quell the flames, and also served as a messenger — sprinting through the village to instruct his neighbors to stay home when the elders suspected an attack. The villagers believed that the military, which had taken control of parts of the region, played a role in supporting attacks on the Rohingya.
By July, the family decided it was time for their two sons to leave. The parents would remain in Aung Tine.
The boys’ destination would be neighboring Malaysia, where Salamat’s sister, Gulshar, had already moved, and lived with her husband and two children. They were part of a mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar that summer totaling an estimated 125,000 people. Salamat recalls little about the 900-mile trek apart from the mountains and stretches where they had to get out of cramped truck and walk. “I didn’t know what direction I was going. I just knew that I was going to my sister.”
In Malaysia, the brothers crowded into their sister’s family’s small apartment. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which requires countries to allow refugee children to enroll in school. As an “illegal immigrant,” Salamat could not register for school. He earned a meager living doing electrical work.
At the end of 2015, Salamat’s brother-in-law received word that the United States had agreed to admit his family as refugees. Seventeen at the time, Salamat qualified as a dependent.
In January, they flew to Chicago. Salamat was most excited to resume his education. “I thought I would wake up every morning, get a cup of coffee, go to school,” he said.
‘I have to work. I have to earn money.’
In Rogers Park, Salamat moved into a dingy one-bedroom apartment with his sister, brother-in-law, and their now three children. They lived off West Devon Avenue in an area bustling with immigrant families, including many Rohingya.
Salamat’s brother-in-law found work cleaning airplanes at the airport. And in February 2016, the teen enrolled at Mather High School on the city’s north side, which has a large immigrant population.
In his first days, Salamat took a test assessing his English proficiency. He scored just 1.9 on a 6-point scale. That meant that he would start Mather as a 17-year-old freshman, taking beginner English as a second language (ESL) classes.
Salamat felt disoriented — and not just when it came to language. In Myanmar, students stayed in the same room all day; the teachers came to them. At Mather, Salamat carried a printed floor plan of the building with him at all times. Still, he kept getting lost. “I didn’t even know the bell ring sound,” he said.
After only six months, Salamat dropped out. His brother-in-law was stretched thin supporting the Chicago household. Meanwhile, Salamat’s parents had moved to Yangon to escape the violence of Rakhine. They desperately needed help with moving costs and rent.
“I was like, ‘I have to work. I have to earn money,’” he says. Approaching 18 years old at the time, Salamat had yet to complete his freshman year.
His decision is disturbingly common for older teenage refugee students — particularly young men from Myanmar. “The older the student grows, the more pressure there is to work,” says Abdul Jabbar, a Rohingya refugee and caseworker at Chicago’s Pan-African Association, a resettlement agency.
Jabbar and others say there are several reasons for the high drop-out rates, some cultural and others structural: many Rohingya come from villages where formal schooling ends early; schools lack sufficient mentors for this group; and older teen males sometimes face peer pressure to start their own families.
“Rohingya young men who are 17 or 18 often think of themselves as men, not teens who should be in school,” said Laura Toffenetti, assistant director of Chicago’s Rohingya Culture Center. “Planning for the future gets sidetracked by trying to survive the present.”
Indeed, the biggest reason is money. Rohingya women typically do not work outside the home and older relatives sometimes remain behind in Myanmar. This means that from the moment they land on American soil, men in refugee families start scrambling for jobs.
The country’s resettlement program, which has been cut significantly under President Donald Trump, has in recent decades prioritized refugee employment. The focus on quick employment comes at a cost, according to the authors of the 2017 Migration Policy Institute report. There’s not nearly as much financial and programmatic support for refugees who want to return to school or hone job skills, possibly resulting in “brain waste,” they write.
The Refugee Act of 1980 defines “success” largely in terms of employment metrics, not civic engagement or non-economic measures of integration. The federal government spends at least four times as much money on job training and support for refugees as it does on educational assistance, according to a 2015 report from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The length of cash assistance for refugee families has also plummeted in recent decades. Prior to the 1990s, the federal government provided up to three years of social welfare benefits created specifically for the refugee population. Now, that’s capped at eight months. Refugees still receive one-time grants when they arrive in the U.S. — which have increased over the last decade. But, at just over $1,100 per person, the money only subsidizes the cost of living for a month or two in cities with high living expenses, like Chicago.
“There’s no financial safety net,” says Anne Saw, an assistant professor of psychology at DePaul University who studies Asian-American immigrant communities. “Often, the entirety of the single paycheck coming in the family goes toward rent.”
By contrast, refugees in Canada receive an initial cash grant that’s larger than the U.S. amount (a family of five would get upwards of $6,000). They then can receive monthly income assistance — on top of any social welfare benefits — for up to a year.
Salamat and his sister’s family received a little over $5,500 shortly after arriving in the U.S. ($1,125 per person). They spent about half of that on a security deposit and the first two months’ rent, says Ephraim Assefa, a former caseworker at the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago who helped the family settle. It then took Salamat’s brother-in-law more than three months to find even a low-paying job at the airport.
After dropping out, Salamat also went to work full-time at O’Hare International Airport, a popular employment hub for Chicago’s Rohingya men. His daily commute, by bus and then train, took two hours each way. At first, he worked late night shifts cleaning airplanes — hustling to vacuum aisles and clearing seat pockets of garbage. “My body always felt down,” he says. Most of his co-workers didn’t speak English, giving him little opportunity to practice.
By the summer of 2017, Salamat had switched to a less physically taxing job at an airline lounge. But he worried that unless he went back to school, waiting tables might be the best work he would ever find. His sister, like his parents, values education and understood his desire to finish high school. Gulshar says she worked hard for good grades even though, unlike her brothers, she did not get sent away to study. “I don’t know a lot of English,” she says, with Salamat translating. “But I am very good at math.”
So at the age of 19, Salamat decided to re-enroll in school. With some help from a 77-year-old former volunteer at the Ethiopian Community Association, he found Sullivan High, where about 40 percent of students are English-language learners. Several of his friends already attended Sullivan. Salamat continued to work weekends so that he could keep sending money to his parents.
He felt convinced that if he worked virtually nonstop, he would be able to get it all done.
Life as a young adult refugee student
On a Monday morning last winter, Salamat was the first to arrive in his “Modern Band” class at Sullivan. He walked into the amphitheater-shaped classroom, its blue walls decorated with vinyl records, and grabbed a guitar from the instrument closet; he strummed and hummed happily as classmates trickled in. Learning to play guitar is one of the joys of his return to student life.
Salamat’s warm-up ended when his music teacher announced the class would work in pairs to write musical compositions. Salamat raised his hand: “Can I be a soloist? Can I make my own song?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t make that exception, Sal,” she told him.
His resistance to team up is not unusual for young adult refugee students, says Quintenz, who heads Sullivan’s ESL program.
“The students who are mentally and physically older…the ones who know about being an adult — about being tired, about being broke, about paying bills — those are the students who tend to keep to themselves,” Quintenz said.
Although Sullivan has made strides toward better serving immigrant students, it still lacks two things that could most help Salamat: flexible scheduling (students are required to be on campus from 8 a.m. to 3 pm.) and staff who speak his language.
Schools and districts large and small have struggled to recruit staff members from new or growing immigrant communities, including Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Sullivan enrolls about 30 students whose families speak primarily Burmese or Rohingya at home. (Another 13 students report speaking Malay, also common among Rohingya refugees.) Although staff speak 12 languages between them, including Korean, Arabic, and Hindi, no one speaks Burmese, Rohingya or Malay.
Finding educators who speak both Burmese and English well is a huge challenge. Mather, which Salamat attended before Sullivan, enrolls over 20 Burmese speakers (one of 68 different languages spoken by students), according to Elena Indman, chair of the ESL department. Last year, the school pushed hard to find a Burmese-speaking teacher, reaching out to local universities for recommendations. “We got nobody,” Indman said.
Sharing a common language not only facilitates communication with families, it also provides students with natural mentors. “The Rohingya here need more role models when it comes to education,” says Saw. She adds that many older Rohingya parents didn’t finish primary school in Myanmar.
It’s not a coincidence that Salamat has forged the closest relationship at Sullivan with Habeeba Fatima, his math teacher and an Indian immigrant. “Being an immigrant is a plus point for me,” Fatima says. “Students see that connection.”
Fatima knows more details about Salamat’s life outside school than other teachers, including that he worries constantly about whether his parents receive the money he sends.
With no Rohingya or Burmese speaker on staff, Sullivan has created a “student ambassador program” where student leaders from different immigrant communities help orient newly arrived refugees: showing them where to purchase school uniforms, for instance.
Last year, CPS awarded the school $300,000 in funding to hire four ESL teachers and a dedicated social worker. “We know what a good support system looks like for these students,” said Matthew Fasana, an assistant principal. “But there’s always been a funding dilemma.”
A few schools across the country have experimented with longer hours for older immigrant teens. Those include Houston’s Liberty High School, where evening classes stretch until 10 p.m. “Many of our students who are new to the country…are responsible for themselves but also for families back home,” says Principal Monico Rivas.
In Chicago, Salamat’s best bet for more flexible scheduling would be to enroll in a largely online program, where he would forgo considerable teacher support. His grades have dipped in recent months (he declined to share specifics). And it’s tough for him to imagine how he could be successful with less teacher assistance.
Salamat recently quit his job at the suburban fast-food restaurant to make it easier to focus on school. He plans to start his junior year at Sullivan in the fall (he turns 20 in August). Yet he feels that he needs to earn at least some money, and scrambled in June to line up job possibilities closer to home.
He relies on his faith to help him push through long, grueling days. The streets of West Devon Avenue bustle with storefronts selling Indian and Pakistani food, boutiques, salons and faith-based community centers.
Salamat started attending one center, the “Islamic Oasis,” soon after he arrived. Many late afternoons find him there. One day, Salamat arrived at the Oasis wearing a sky blue t-shirt that read: “Where Will Your Journey Lead?” He took off his shoes, washed his hands and face and quickly prayed. For the next couple of hours, he shuffled between small groups of boys, helping them fill out worksheets with questions about the solar system and algebra, his typically solemn demeanor disappearing for occasional giggles.
Salamat wants to serve as a role model for younger immigrants. And he knows that to do that well, he should focus on his education. He’s committed to graduating high school by 2020, when he will turn 22, and dreams of becoming a teacher someday. But his parents also tug deeply at his heart. “My parents are very old. I don’t want them to work again,” he says. “I want them to be safe and support them as much as I can.” When he is eligible for citizenship after five years in the U.S., Salamat hopes to bring them to Chicago.
For now, Salamat doesn’t dare count on any education post-Sullivan High.
“If tomorrow I tell my parents, ‘I cannot send money and I have to go to college,’ they will let me go,” Salamat says. “But in my heart, I know they need help.”
“Everyone has a dream to come to America,” he adds. “But want to say it is not easy. It is not easy at all.”
This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, as part of its continuing coverage of the intersection between education and immigration. The story also published at the Chicago Sun-Times.