A middle school in Georgia is helping resettled refugee girls flourish in their new community
On the surface, everything about the morning at the Global Village Project school indicates a typical morning at any middle school in Georgia. But Global Village Project, located in Decatur, is a special place with an important mission: educating recently resettled refugee girls and helping them prepare for high school.
Actress Kat Graham, who has called Decatur home for nearly a decade, spent the day at Global Village Project meeting students, teachers and an alum, Khaty, now a college student. A Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Kat has dedicated the last decade of her life to helping people like Khaty who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, violence and persecution.
Khaty was 15 years old when she first stepped through the doors of Global Village Project. Her family had recently been resettled to Georgia after fleeing Afghanistan. The year before Khaty enrolled at Global Village Project she attended a local public high school where she struggled academically and struggled to find community.
Reflecting on her first days at Global Village Project, Khaty expresses, “I was relieved, all the stress that I held on to, all the crazy stuff that I was carrying, I just left it behind those big doors in the hallway. And after that, I was like, ‘Yes. This is where I belong.’”
“Students are not judged because of where they come from, not judged because of how they look, how they speak or how old they are,” Khaty continues. “They’re just here to feel safe, feel protected and feel like they’re heard and welcomed.”
Founded in 2009, Global Village Project is the only school in the country dedicated to meeting the educational needs of refugee young women and preparing them for high school. More than 300 students have graduated from Global Village Project since its doors opened. This year, more than 40 students are enrolled, representing 8 different countries and speaking 14 different languages.
For Elizabeth Elango, CEO and Head of School, the name of the school reflects the care each student receives along their educational journey.
“The school’s founders were inspired by the saying that it takes a ‘village to raise a child,’ and it certainly does,” explains Elizabeth. “We have teachers and staff but we rely on volunteers and approximately 80 people come through this building every week to volunteer with the students.”
The school’s curriculum is rooted in trauma-informed teaching to help meet both the educational and emotional needs of the children. Many students at Global Village Project had their access to education interrupted as a result of being forced to flee their home countries — for others, this is the first formal school they’ve ever attended.
“In practice, [trauma-informed teaching] is no different than teaching with respect for the fact that you are working with individual people, with individual needs, that you may not fully understand or be aware of,” explains Hannah Edber, Director of Education. “At the core of it, trauma-informed teaching looks like giving students choice, space and time to make decisions about themselves, their bodies, their movement and even what you're asking them to share about themselves.”
It’s no coincidence that the Global Village Project has been embraced by the local community and is thriving — Georgia, and the metro Atlanta area in particular, have been welcoming refugees for decades.
Many of the students at Global Village Project now call Clarkston, Georgia home.
“Clarkston has been a refugee-welcoming community for many years,” Elizabeth explains. “It has the nickname of being the Ellis Island of the South, and there's a reason for that. So much of [Clarkston’s] DNA is about making people feel welcome and making them feel like they belong.”
At the school, that same sense of diversity and welcome felt in Clarkston, is seen in the budding friendships among the students that span culture and language. For Kat Graham, how the students shared music and how it transcends language barriers was most striking.
“[The students] have such a reverence for music and for connection that it doesn't actually matter whether they speak the language or not,” shares Kat. “I thought that was so profound.”
Music class, taught by Director of Music Elise Witt, is immersive and provides another safe space for the students to express themselves and build tighter bonds with their friends and teachers. It’s also a place filled with joy.
“A personal value [of mine] is to infuse joy in everything,” Elizabeth shares. “And so this being a joyful space is very important for the girls. We want this to be a space where they can come and just be children again.”
While the first steps of a student’s journey at Global Village Project help them build community and recapture their childhood, the mission of the school is future-focused and seeks to empower young women to pursue their goals and dreams.
Elizabeth shares that the idea of empowerment through education is rooted in her own lived experience as an immigrant and is another reason she is so devoted to the mission of the school.
“I say to the girls all the time, ‘You can be anything.’ And I know that from the experience of my own life.”
Originally from Cameroon, Elizabeth’s own educational journey started in a school with dirt floors but ended at Yale.
Although Khaty’s journey is still unfolding, her future is bright and she has her sights trained on a PhD. She also continues to play an active role at Global Village Project.
“It's amazing now to see Khaty become the woman that she's becoming, and to see her come on campus and spend time with the girls,” Elizabeth proudly shares.
“When she comes to talk to the girls, whether at lunch or popping into the classroom, she's just full of inspiration,” Elizabeth continues. “The students hang onto every word that she says because they know she understands their experience.”
Learn more about how the Atlanta region welcomes refugees
For decades, refugees have moved to metro Atlanta, settling in suburbs outside of the city and enriching their communities with cultural diversity and economic prosperity. Learn more about the welcoming history of Atlanta and the amazing contributions refugees are making in the community.