Like a lot of kids at day camp this summer, Lily is enjoying going to the beach once a week, traveling around Chicago on special field trips, and playing with her friends. One big difference, though, is that Lily's friends are from Nepal, Pakistan, and Iraq—and that a big part of what makes camp so great is that it's also helping her to keep improving her English and acclimate to Chicago.
A bit shy but ready with a smile, Lily arrived in the U.S. two years ago with her parents and brother from Malaysia. Her family had to leave their native Burma when she was 10, and they arrived in Chicago as refugees in September 2007. Without knowing any English, she was thrown into a new school, a new community, and a new way of life.
Heartland Alliance's Summer Youth Program has been one part of how Lily has thrived. She learns about her new city with a field trip every Tuesday, plays soccer in an all-refugee youth league every Wednesday, and goes to Lake Michigan every Thursday—all with other refugee youth from around the world. "It's a good place to learn about America," she says. "The beach is the best thing."
Last year, the theme for the summer program was "Green It and Mean It," and the nearly three dozen young refugees in the program learned about environmentalism in the city, including a visit to a working farm. This summer's theme is to explore Chicago, and Lily says her favorite trip so far has been to the Garfield Park Conservatory. "I saw plants I have never seen before," she says. "And I even saw some plants I recognized from our home in Burma."
Heartland Alliance has been there to help Lily and her family from the time their plane landed at O'Hare. Heartland Alliance's refugee relocation program had an apartment ready in Rogers Park for the family, helped them acclimate to the neighborhood and the city, and provided her father with classes to prepare him for employment, then found him a job.
During the school year, Lily is part of a Heartland after-school program every Wednesday for refugee children. She says she's doing well at Eugene Field Elementary School—even in science, her least favorite subject last year in 7th grade. Special help with homework in the program, such as a volunteer from Northwestern who did science experiments with the kids, helps, as does the chance to talk with staff and other refugee kids.
A Heartland Alliance volunteer also tutors Lily and her brother, and her face lights up when talking about Meredith. "She's very nice to us," Lily says. "She takes us to the park, and helps us with our classes. She says she wants me to work hard and go to a good high school."
This summer, Lily is a junior counselor at camp and helps the younger kids and is given responsibilities like handing out snacks. Less than two years removed from a refugee camp, she's becoming a real Chicagoan, right down to complaining about the weather: "I thought it would be very hot here too [like in Malaysia]," she says. "But not so much. I like Spring."