The Welcome New Neighbor initiative is a collaboration between the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education and community partners that resettle and support people with refugee backgrounds in Burlington and nearby communities.
As Nermin Vehabovic sits with the Elon students in his Children’s Literature and Arts Integration course, he sees himself in the three boys whom the class works with.
His class is sitting in a circle on the floor of the Elon Community Church library reading “The Field,” a story about children on the island of Saint Lucia who build a soccer pitch where they not only enjoy the game but learn lessons of diversity and acceptance. The author’s note, which one of the Elon education teacher candidates reads aloud, illuminates how much the author misses these soccer games that inspired the book.
It was then that Vehabovic took a moment to ask the three brothers about the memories they have of their homes. Each of the boys began to talk about the farms of their homeland the Central African Republic, the animals they remember and, like the characters of “The Field,” the many hours spent on soccer pitches that never seemed to end.
“Do you all miss your home?” Vehabovic asked the boys. They nodded.
“I know what that experience is like,” Vehabovic said. “The first time I met one of the boys, he said that he was in the fifth grade, and I started sixth grade when I moved here with my family.
“Through this experience of settling in North Carolina as a refugee, I simply wanted my teachers and people in the community to see the humanity in me. Show me that you care about me. Show me that I am safe with you — physically, psychologically and emotionally,” he added.
Vehabovic’s first-hand experience of what it is like to be a newcomer in a new country motivated him to start “Welcome New Neighbor,” a collaboration between the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education and community partners that resettle and support people with refugee backgrounds in Burlington and nearby communities. Its mission is to foster and sustain care in out-of-school contexts, such as families’ homes and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Currently, 23 Elon education teacher candidates work with five families that recently settled in Burlington, Vehabovic said. Three families are from Afghanistan, one is from Guatemala and one is from the Central African Republic. Four of these families are hosting Elon students in their homes.
“It’s such a gift for our students in the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education to have the opportunity to learn with and from families in the families’ homes and a community setting,” Vehabovic said.
The initiative centers around five core beliefs:
- It is essential to care deeply for the communities and people that we serve.
- In creating and sustaining relationships of care and dignity in out-of-school contexts, we can extend and reinvigorate languages, cultures and stories with children, youth and families.
- It is necessary to acknowledge and honor the broad range of language and literacy practices that occur in homes and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
- Reading and responding to children’s literature is equitable when the learning goals or pursuits of these shared reading sessions foreground identity development, skill and intellectual development, criticality and joy.
- Multilingual people engage in translanguaging in their everyday lives as they use language varieties and navigate social boundaries.
By reading and responding to children’s literature, providing help with homework and engaging in play and outdoor activities such as playing soccer, and even helping out on the sidelines of an Elon men’s soccer game, Welcome New Neighbor provides a space for children and youth from refugee backgrounds to be treated with dignity and respect.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to connect our Elon education teacher candidates with these amazing families. They’re definitely able to hear and deeply listen to the children, youth and their families, as well as see them and cultivate safe and caring spaces,” Vehabovic said.
Bella Martino ’26, a special and elementary education major and one of the group leaders in the class working with the Central African Republic family, said there has to be a focus on humanizing education. Students can often spend more time in school than at home, and for culturally and linguistically diverse students who are experiencing new aspects of culture and navigating multiple languages, it is paramount to foster a comfortable learning space for them.
“If a student doesn’t feel comfortable or safe, or … feel as though they are in a tense situation, then we’re not going to get any learning done,” Martino said. “As an educator, it’s important to obviously have boundaries and have rules and a classroom structure. But it’s equally as important to make sure that your students feel as though they can take a breath and actually absorb and enjoy what’s going on.”
In their work with the boys from the Central African Republic as well as the children and families from Afghanistan and Guatemala, the class focuses on reading children’s books that serve as “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” — allowing children and youth to see themselves in the characters and to access worlds that are different from theirs.
Carrying out the mission of the Welcome New Neighbor initiative involves collaborating with community partners that resettle and support people with refugee backgrounds, such as Elon Community Church, First Presbyterian Church Burlington and Church World Service, which now has an office in Burlington to provide resettlement and employment services for our new neighbors.
This work and current partnerships are supported by the Kernodle Center for Civic Life through a Community Partnership Initiative (CPI) grant, which seeks to connect local community partners with Elon students and faculty, and subsequently prepare students to be global citizens and informed leaders motivated by concern for the common good.
“I am very grateful for the wonderful folks in the Kernodle Center for Civic Life. They have encouraged me to pursue connections with local community partners. The CPI grant provided $1,500 in funds to purchase supplies and materials,” Vehabovic said. “These supplies and materials directly benefit children, youth and families in our local community as well as Elon students who can have meaningful hands-on experiences.”
Krissy Randolph ’26 is the other group leader in the Children’s Literature and Arts Integration class working with the brothers from the Central African Republic. Randolph said this experience has been just as important for her as it has for the children. The elementary education major knows that she will one day work with diverse learners, and this experience has been invaluable. But more than helping her prepare for a career, Randolph said the experience has impacted her personally.
“Now I know that doing things you fear or doing things that you never thought you would do could bring out another side, a better side, of me that I can connect with people from diverse backgrounds, learn from them, them learning from me. It’s a mutual benefit,” she said.
Vehabovic hopes his students in the course will take with them the necessity of recognizing the humanity in multilingual children, youth and families from refugee backgrounds.
“In the same way that I yearned for others to see me more than a newcomer, refugee and language learner, I’m confident that these experiences shape Elon education teacher candidates to become equity-minded teachers who care deeply for the children and communities they serve, extend and reinvigorate languages, cultures and stories, as well as acknowledge and honor the broad range of language and literacy practices that take place in homes and communities,” Vehabovic said.