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Breaking Down Barriers for Refugee Students

When Madina Olomi (D.C. Region '14) was placed in a school with the most refugee students in the county, she was able to relate to them on a level many teachers could not.
Thursday, December 22, 2016

By the time Madina Olomi (D.C. Region ’14) entered her first classroom in America, she had enough stamps on her passport to make even the most ardent of travelers take notice.

Her parents, immigrants from Afghanistan who lived in Saudi Arabia, sent Madina and her brother abroad to complete high school in America, where they were born but moved away from at a young age.

“My mom would travel back and forth spending a few months in the States and a few months in Saudi, and as a child, you don’t realize the huge sacrifice your parents are making spending months apart,” Madina says. “I was so unappreciative what they were doing with all the moving that I stopped caring about school.”

Fortunately, her older brother had already made it to UC Berkeley, and when he visited Madina during her first semester of community college, he brought a perspective that would change her life.

student at college graduation

“He told me how great university [life] was, and he told me about a program called Teach For America that I could join after I graduated,” she recalls, as her aimless trajectory suddenly found focus. “He knew how much I loved working with kids, and when I did research on TFA and its mission, it was exactly what I wanted to do with my life and gave me a goal I could pursue.”

This newfound inspiration propelled her to UCLA to finish her undergraduate studies, and she joined Teach For America.

As an Early Childhood Educator, Madina fell in love with her preschool classroom at Templeton Elementary School in Prince George’s County, Maryland—especially when several students’ stories echoed hers.

“I truly believe that it was fate that brought me to Templeton, a school with the highest intake of refugee students in the whole county,” she says. “Most of our students were Afghan and Arab and spoke the two languages that I spoke fluently.

teacher with smiling students in classroom
Madina's upbringing and ability to speak multiple languages has been vital in her ability to connect with her students.

“It gave me a chance to connect to students on a different level and helped them feel loved, safe, and happy knowing that there was someone that understood them and could help them communicate until they learned English.”

In the current landscape where immigration is a topic of ardent discussion, Madina found the classroom to be a place where children of all backgrounds could learn to love themselves and the people around them. “One of the most beautiful things to see was two kids that didn't even speak the same language become best friends,” she says.

During her two-year commitment, Madina began to comprehend how to survive through struggle. “I learned how to persevere after failure, and I also learned how beautiful it was to see success afterward,” she says. “Also, meeting people at TFA who fully believed they could work to make a difference gave me hope that things could change.”

Ever the global citizen, Madina has continued her journey as an educator, except this time, it’s across the Atlantic at a refugee camp in Greece. Once again, math and reading lectures go hand in hand with lessons on tolerance and acceptance.

teacher with refugees in refugee camp
Today, Madina relishes the opportunity to level the playing field for refugee students in Greece.

“I teach kids that have either never been to school or have been out of school for five years. Their childhoods have been stolen due to war,” she says. “I took this job because someone needs to give them a voice.”

The challenge is imposing, but Madina will face it without flinching. In fact, some of the successes she’s experienced so far are universal. “Whenever I see that magical moment where two little people connect through play, even though they have no common language or culture,” she says, “it reminds me of Templeton and my time in the corps.”

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