Not lack of caring: Immigrant parents face challenges overseeing children’s education

Zahra Mustafa
Zahra Mustafa, Voices Writer

Looking around my ninth-grade science class at Eagan High School, I noticed I was one of only two students of color in class, along with a Somali boy who had a habit of not finishing his work.

One unusual day, I realized I had not gotten to my homework the previous evening. I felt a sudden twinge of guilt by association, because we were the only students of color and neither turned in our work.

At the end of the day, I overheard a teacher say, “Maybe if his parents were involved, he would be doing well.” However, I knew this student’s parents, and they work very hard to provide for his education and life.

In fact, I know many Somali parents who make their kids better students in different ways – including sacrificing their needs to support and provide for their kids.

I was born in the city of Nairobi, Kenya, and when I was 7 years old, we moved to a refugee camp called Kakuma. During my time at the refugee camp, I never felt as though I was missing something, because my parents always worked so hard to provide and keep me safe. Even after coming to the United States, both of my parents still work very hard to provide for my education.

For example, even though my mom can’t speak English, she wakes up every morning ready to go to work, cook and drive all six of my siblings to our after-school activities. My dad works long hours, yet when he comes home and we ask him to help us with our homework or for money for field trips, he always tries his best to provide.

But even though many immigrant parents work hard to provide for their kids’ well-being, some of them face barriers helping their kids with schoolwork.

The biggest barrier, I believe, is education. In Kenya, when it came to school, all parents had to do was send their kids and the rest was up to the teacher. In the American school system, by contrast, it’s better if parents are involved in a child’s education.

Some of these immigrant parents don’t have a higher education. My parents can’t help me with my science or English homework. They have not read books by Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. Having well-educated parents can be very useful in so many ways. They know the value of education, the quality it should have and how the knowledge gained from education can be put to good use.

Another significant barrier is culture. Culture plays a critical role in the relationship between parents and their kids. Many immigrant parents bring their kids to the U.S. at a very young age and some of the kids start adapting to the culture here faster and easier. When communication breaks down, the ability of the parents to assist their child is lessened.

Lastly, another notable barrier is language. One of the reasons immigrant parents are sometimes not involved as much is that they can’t communicate in English— verbally or on paper—well enough. Some of these parents can’t read the materials that are sent home with students for review. They often also can’t respond to an email from their child’s teacher or principal due to their limitations on writing fluently in English.

In the end, these barriers should be kept in mind.

Immigrant parents are indeed involved in their children’s education, but not always in the way the American school system thinks they should be. Schools could help parents surmount these obstacles by being patient, being more accepting and hiring more translators. And if the school works with the parents, parents can also work with the school—and that will help students succeed.