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Learning To Love The Water: Teaching Resettled Refugees Swimming Safety04:21
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Students from Lynda Siegel's ESL class are learning water safety through a free course at the Greater Burlington YMCA. (Courtesy Doug Bishop/YMCA)
Students from Lynda Siegel's ESL class are learning water safety through a free course at the Greater Burlington YMCA. (Courtesy Doug Bishop/YMCA)
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As summer rolls in, many New Englanders hit up their favorite beaches or swimming holes. But recreational swimming is a new idea to many refugee families in the region — and some view it as dangerous. A water safety program in Vermont teaches children new to America how to be safe and enjoy the water.

Swimming — And Pools — Are New To These Children

Jess Lukas, youth and families coordinator at the Greater Burlington YMCA, tells a group of children in the pool to keep their heads back and take deep breaths, nice and slow.

She's teaching a class of eager third-, fourth- and fifth-graders how to swim, but unlike some kids their age, most of these students have never been swimming before — let alone seen a pool.

"[For] a lot of these kids, a) there's no access to a swimming pool, no access to swim lessons — and their exposure around water, a lot of my kids, like when I first started working with the Somali Bantu population, those students would say to me, 'we never went near the water because there were crocodiles,' " explains Lynda Siegel, who teaches water safety in an ESL [English as a second language] classroom.

This year, all of Siegel's students came to Vermont via the refugee resettlement program:

"My students are from, they are Somali, they are Congolese and they are Bhutanese," she says.

Five years ago, the YMCA reached out to her school to offer a free, five-day water safety course.

Siegel jumped on the opportunity. She says because her students didn’t grow up around water and don't yet speak English, they are particularly vulnerable.

"For the week before we come, I spend the week teaching them vocabulary — so, 'deep end,' 'deep water,' 'shallow water,' 'drown,' 'blow bubbles' — those kinds of vocabulary words," Siegel says.

Siegel adds this gives them familiarity so they can understand the swim instructions.

"They're very excited, but they're also really scared when they first arrive," she says. "We often have this scene of girls clinging to the railings at the stairway."

One of the students, Sandra, says she was "scared" and "nervous" the first time she climbed into the pool. But, the third-grader shows no signs of being nervous in the pool now.

Sandra just arrived in Vermont this fall. She was born in India, but then moved to a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal before coming to the U.S. After only five classes — and a little help from her teacher — she’s already comfortable in the water.

Sandra (right) says she got into the water for the first time in an after-school program. Back in Nepal and India, her family had never set foot in a swimming pool. (Courtesy Doug Bishop/YMCA)
Sandra (right) says she got into the water for the first time in an after-school program. Back in Nepal and India, her family had never set foot in a swimming pool. (Courtesy Doug Bishop/YMCA)

"I, my teacher [has been] holding my hand and practicing with me, doing the floating [on my] back and swimming and doing scooping," Sandra explains. She says her family did not swim in Nepal.

"No, they never touch a swimming pool," she says.

In the pool, two of her classmates are wearing what's called a birkini. It's a swimsuit with a hijab that covers the entire body.

YMCA's Doug Bishop says the organization purchased those swimsuits as part of a partnership with the University of Vermont Medical Center.

"Some of the funds that they give us help ensure that we have bathing suits that are appropriate for some of the different religions that we serve through our new American populations, allowing the girls to have their head covered or full body covered," Bishop explains. "[They're] special swimsuits so they can participate just like every other student in their class."

On the last day of water safety lessons in the five-day courses, the students' whooping enthusiasm makes it seem like they've grown up in the water.

The kids have learned how to float, how to tread water, and how to help a fellow student without putting themselves at risk. Some are even beginning to learn the breaststroke with a “kid-centric” technique.

"Make the pizza, cut the pizza," instructs Lukas, guiding the children. "Can you show me how you do it?"

Lukas has been working with Siegel's classroom for the past five years. She says the outreach to new Americans is working. Lukas says she sees some of the students from refugee families again in summer camp groups, or others will get guest passes so they can come to the Y with their families.

"It's an amazing program," Lukas says, smiling. "It's my favorite week of the year! Exhausting, but my favorite."

This story comes via the New England News Collaborative, and was first published by Vermont Public Radio.

This segment aired on June 29, 2017.

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