Putting the World Back Together

Oklahoma City's New Land Academy helps kids from war-torn countries be kids again.

story by Greg Horton | photos by Jonathan Burkhart

To tell a story in Oklahoma, you often have to talk about religion, and not the “God thinks I’m awesome and wants me to be happy” kind, but the “God calls me to sacrifice comfort or take huge risks” kind. It doesn’t matter whether the reader/listener actually believes in a god or gods—that’s a very important point—because the story would make no sense without the protagonist’s belief.

Emilee Little believes God made a promise to her, and no matter what you think about religion or faith, New Land Academy exists and does amazing work because Little believes God told her something while she was on a trip to Colorado.

For the sake of the uninitiated or unbaptized or unbelieving, we’re not talking about God’s audible voice in an otherwise empty room kind of thing. Most Christians who believe God still speaks, believe God speaks internally, with a voice that is difficult to discern. “Some friends sent me to Colorado in 2012 for a sabbatical,” Little said. “While I was there, God gave me a promise from Isaiah 54—expand your house…spare no expense.”

Little had been working in the mortgage and health care industries after college, but she wanted to do something that helped her community. She believed the biblical passage was an encouragement for her to help refugees in Oklahoma City.

“Kim Bandy, one of the directors of the Spero Project, called to tell me that girls she was working with were failing school,” Little said. “She asked if I’d quit my job and help these girls.”

The girls were refugees from Eritrea, a nation in conflict with Ethiopia and itself over the past fifty years. The small east African nation is a closed, secretive state, and the instability following its 30-year civil war with Ethiopia made it nearly impossible for genuine education to take place.

"The average stay in a refuge camp is 17 years. The kids come to us with amazing survival skills, and they speak multiple languages, but the experience of living as a refugee causes dreams to die."

One of those girls, Sambatu Usman, came to the U.S. six years ago with her parents and three siblings. Like most refugees in Oklahoma, the family was resettled by Catholic Charities, the only refugee resettlement service in the state. She was placed in a public school where, by her own admission, she struggled with learning, especially English and math. She was an eighth grader at the time, and now, at 17, she is a junior at New Land and on track to graduate next year.

Usman’s ability to catch up and graduate on time is impressive, and it’s very rare for refugee kids. The refugee life does not provide much time for formal education. Children can lose years of education while trying to survive.

Let’s pause for a moment and try to contemplate that; the challenge of trying to grow up and to learn within the context of such violence and war. And then trying to do that in a totally new land, culture, language.

Dropping refugee kids into an American public school makes it nearly impossible for them to succeed, especially given the overburdened state of our public schools combined with the foundationalist nature of education — each lesson, each chapter, each year is a building block for the next.

New Land helps transition them back into formal education, and they do it in a way that recognizes the unique gifts, abilities and problems each child brings. Junior Sambatu Usman plans on styling hair when she graduates; she has not yet picked a school for cosmetology, but she’s already doing hair, living into the person she wants to become, the person she now, thanks to Little and NLA, has the space and grace to become.

New Land staff also recognize that identity and hope can be battered from these children. Refugees don’t just face the prospect of leaving their homes, settling in camps, and living hand-to-mouth; they also have to learn a new way of living if they are resettled in a stable environment, like Oklahoma City. Little explains it thus: 

“The average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. The kids come to us with amazing survival skills, and they speak multiple languages, but the experience of living as a refugee causes dreams to die. Since I was a little girl, my parents told me I could do what I want to do, but these students have never had that experience.”

This year, New Land has students from six countries: Burma, Eritrea, India, Iraq, Jordan and Sudan. It was seven last year, but Shazadah Poyan graduated. She’s from Afghanistan. Like the other students at NLA, she came to the school needing help transitioning. “There was no real connection between the teachers in public school and the students,” Poyan said. “At NLA, we are like a family, and they helped me figure out what I’m good at and what I want to do.”

From left to right: Mu, Sambatu, and Zaw

Poyan is Muslim; she’s from Kabul. It’s worth noting that Little doesn’t care what religion her kids are; as far as she’s concerned, they are all created by God for a purpose, and even the non-religious among us can get behind a process that helps kids dare to dream again. Poyan acknowledged that talking about the spiritual component was difficult at first, fraught with misunderstanding, but now they have moved to a position of mutual respect. Poyan started her first semester at college in August. That goal was one of the reasons her mother brought her and her brother to the U.S. “I couldn’t get an education there,” Poyan said, matter-of-factly.

Now, she’s working toward a dental hygiene program, but that’s not necessarily where she wants to end up. She thought about dental school, but needs to make money sooner than the eight or so years it would take to pull that off, so she said, “The dental hygiene career may just be my first career. I may do another degree after.”

From the shambles that is contemporary Afghanistan to a girl dreaming of multiple college degrees—that is the NLA project in a nutshell, a crazy, dream-big, no whining, get-shit-done kind of program that unbreaks the world.

Zaw Oo is a 23-year-old Burmese student. Yes, 23. In the public school system, he aged out at 21, but he wasn’t ready to call it quits on his education. (When I asked where he was from, he said Burma, not Myanmar. The Burmese students tend to refer to it that way.) Oo works at a Valero service station while completing his senior year at NLA. Little speaks of the humility in coming back to school at his age, and Oo smiles, a bit embarrassed at the praise.

“Tell him what you’re doing now,” Little encourages.

“I have an internship,” Oo said. He looked at Little to verify the word’s accuracy. She smiled and nodded.

“One of our corporate partners has offered Zaw an internship at the company so he can work on his computer programming,” she explained.

The company is NetSuite, and Daniel Cassil, the senior software engineer, teaches the NLA kids how to code, at least the ones who want to learn. NLA relies on private donations and a network of partners, including the Crestwood Vineyard church where the school is housed, to make the program work. Little does have teachers on staff, but far more come in on an adjunct basis to teach the kids academic or life skills on this unassuming strip of NW 16th Street near Villa.

Little’s philosophy is posted all over the school, visual reminders that the kids matter, that they can dream, that they can, in Little’s words “unleash dreaming.

It’s the third prong of her approach to establishing each child’s individual identity. They are the core of what NLA does: discovering identity, cultivating passion, and unleashing dreaming.

“We have to start undoing the lies they have absorbed in the refugee life,” Little said. “We move them from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I need help,’ and we help them believe they really are smart. They speak multiple languages, have developed survival skills that most of us never need, navigated a new culture. We combine that with a brief background and history oftheir own country before teaching them the history of their new country.”

For the “cultivating passion” component, Little asked herself a question: what would it look like to give refugee kids a chance to do something they enjoy and at which they excel? “They are bogged down by self-sabotage when they first get resettled,” she said. “We move them past that, and teach them to move from passion to purpose, and not just for survival, but for a full life.”

Mu Paw is also Burmese, and the 14-year old has absorbed the lesson of finding joy in something she does.

For Paw, it’s dance. The freshman said she struggled to learn in public school; she felt shy and couldn’t read well. Now, though, she can’t not smile when she talks about dance. Why dance?

Paw shrugs and smiles. “I love to dance.” And she loves hip-hop dance. The kids take an elective class at Studio 7, where Stacey Johnson, another partner, teaches a dance class.

Here again is a child from one of the world’s most restrictive, secretive and war-torn nations, a nation struggling to be more open, but with a history of civil war, totalitarianism, military dictatorships and child soldiers, and she is planning to pursue her love for hip-hop dance. The juxtaposition of her past with her future is astounding.

Little is preparing to help kids from what are perhaps the two worst places on earth to be a kid right now. Catholic Charities is expecting an influx of Syrian and Congolese immigrants this year.

Syria’s war is well documented, but the Congo has been a hellhole since 1994, when the fallout of the genocide in Rwanda spilled over the border. That was followed by civil war in 1996. The human rights violations are innumerable, including the intentional use of gang rape as a weapon of war. These are children who are familiar with horrors from which most Americans avert their eyes when they scroll across our screens.

New Land began with three Eritrean students in a house off NW 43rd. It now has 21 students enrolled, and they moved into the Crestwood facility over Christmas break last year. NLA takes referrals from Catholic Charities, but as their reputation has grown, they now get referrals from the public schools, too. They are fully accredited and Little expects the growth to continue every year. That’s a weird way to have to think about a job or a calling, though. 

The growth of the school means that refugees are still coming, which means somewhere in the world people in power—or who want power— are breaking the world. The children, as always, are the most vulnerable victims. 

Little is prepared for more kids, though, and much of that does come from her faith.

“Education is human formation,” she said, “and because I think we are spiritual creatures, it is impossible to do human formation apart from spirituality.”

It is difficult to recognize how much I—as an adjunct professor myself—agree with the first clause, but balk so strongly at everything that follows. Still, the question of whether or not faith or spirituality are critical to human formation is not of paramount importance when the work that New Land is doing is so obviously necessary and effective. If the children already believe in God, why not help them see God as one who wants them to find their unique identity and unleash their dreams? Why not create a new generation of healed humans who can join in the task of unbreaking the world?

In Judaism there is an ethos best summed up by the phrase “tikkun olam,” to heal the world. The purpose of religion in its best guise is to unbreak what we have broken. Little, like her students, is daring to dream that she can help bend the arc of the universe back toward justice and hope, and in the process unbreak the lives that war and famine and corruption have shattered. It’s a crazy dream, and it’s working.

If you’d like to help, find out more at newlandacademy.com.