Photography by Danny Fulgencio

Dallas is a wonderfully diverse place filled with folks from all over the world, but have you ever considered how frightening it might be for refugees to make the transition from all that is familiar?

Wilshire Heights neighbor Julianne Elson is mindful of the challenges. Despite spending long days teaching first grade, formerly at Uplift Peak Primary School and soon at Lakewood Elementary, she devotes much of her time, energy and talents helping refugees improve literacy through the Reading Circle program at the nonprofit Refugee Resources.

“I knew there were a lot of refugees that have been resettled in Dallas, and I wanted to learn more about what it means to be a refugee and what I could do to help them,” she says.

As fate would have it, she met Alysa Marx, founder of Refugee Resources.

“I decided this would be the perfect opportunity since I have a passion for working with kids and teaching reading,” she says.

After undergoing a background check and training, Elson began mentoring an 11-year-old girl from Burma. She and her family settled in Dallas after staying in a Malaysian refugee camp and residing in Georgia.

Elson and her student met at least weekly to study letter sounds, practice reading and vocabulary for fluency and work on comprehension. In the meantime, the two developed a close relationship. Elson gives her students her phone number and is available 24/7. She relishes her students’ “firsts” — like jumping rope, enjoying a milkshake and learning about different animals.

Elson recalls taking her Burmese student to a Refugee Resources fundraiser last year at Grub Burger Bar on Greenville Avenue. Elson picked her up and noticed that she seemed nervous.

“She kept asking me about the menu because she is Muslim and wanted to be careful to not eat anything that she wasn’t supposed to,” Elson says.

The two agreed to eat salads. She also ordered a milkshake after noticing many of the other kids were asking for one.

“When she took her first bite of her salad and took her first sip of her milkshake, it was clear she loved it,” Elson says.

When her student began wearing a hijab to school, some kids told her they could no longer be friends with her because she is Muslim. Elson dug deep for the words to explain ethnocentrism to the child.

Elson also mentors an 8-year-old boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is starting at square one with English as he learns the alphabet and the sound of each letter. After researching on her own, she created resources and flashcards to help him. She goes above and beyond to let him know that he is loved. Elson asked him multiple times what he wanted for his birthday.

“His answer was always, ‘I want you,’” she says. “I assured him that he already had me.”

She is concerned not just for his literacy skills, but also for his physical well-being. Last winter, she noticed he was not wearing a coat, and his shoes were too big or falling apart. When she visited his home during the holidays, she brought him a coat, shoes, socks and clothes as gifts. His mom, whom Elson had not met, greeted her at the door and insisted she come in.

These students bring so much joy to my week through their smiles, their courage and their strength.

“I joined her on the couch where we sat and giggled and smiled at each other since that was the only language we shared,” she says.

Elson happily remembers that her student was grinning as he pulled his gifts out of the bag.

“I signed up to volunteer for Reading Circle thinking that I was going to help these kids,” Elson says. “I quickly learned that this community and these students have way more to teach me than I can ever teach them. These students bring so much joy to my week through their smiles, their courage and their strength. They have so much resilience and have been through more in their short lives than I ever will in mine.”

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PATTIN VINSON is a guest writer who has lived in East Dallas for more than 20 years. She’s written for the Advocate and Real Simple magazine.

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