“That’s a number that you notice,” Kuhr said. “It’s not overwhelming, but it’s not invisible.”
During the 2015-16 school year, 47 percent of English-language learners in Charlottesville City Schools were refugees, compared to only 3 percent migrants. The most common languages are Spanish, Nepali, Arabic, and Swahili, respectively, with the vast majority of students placing at the lowest level of English proficiency. In contrast to the monolithic images of refugees braving the Mediterranean and struggling to migrate through Europe, the refugees who have settled in Charlottesville bring an astounding array of individual backgrounds, ethnicities, and stories.
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As Virginia’s former governor, Tim Kaine, contends for the vice presidency alongside Hillary Clinton, national politics hit particularly close to home in the swing state. Throughout the election season, national narratives about Muslim immigration, the Syrian refugee crisis, and swelling fears of terrorism have become increasingly conflated with stories of an economic depression that has left many white Americans feeling adrift. They’ve also been complicating the classroom experience at Charlottesville’s schools.
Less than three miles away from Majuto’s school at Albemarle High, Russell Carlock—a social-studies teacher who also specializes in teaching English as a second language—has felt dismayed upon seeing the complex stories refugees have brought into his classroom compressed into 30-second soundbites. As an educator, Carlock’s goal is to teach his students how to think about politicians’ motivations a lens to understand the things they say. But when the issues touch his students personally, the conversation shifts.
On the day we spoke, a student had come to Carlock with a question about the Ku Klux Klan. The student was confused about why the KKK had been in the news; he had only heard stories about the group framed in terms of the distant past.
“I confirmed for him that they still exist and there are white supremacists who exist in the United States,” Carlock said. “Coming to the United States, that was not part of the image he had of this country. The idea that there are still people who have that ideology was shocking to him, and he wanted to talk about it.”
The reverberation of the national election on local incidents was amplified during the Democratic National Convention, after the immigrant and Charlottesville attorney Khizr Khan told the story of his son who died in an explosion in Iraq in 2004 and was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Trump provoked national outrage after implying that Khan’s wife, Ghazala, had remained silent during the DNC speech because the Khans are Muslim.
Though the Khans did not immigrate to the United States as refugees, the distinction between refugees and Muslim immigrants is muddled in the public imagination. The IRC’s Kuhr believes that the steady stream of photos and videos of Syrian refugees making the trip across the Mediterranean by boat have stirred needless fears, further fueling backlash stoked by campaign rhetoric such as Trump’s promise to deport Muslim immigrants. The Obama administration’s pledge to accept 10,000 refugees has also become entangled in the national conversation on immigration, further muddling public understanding.