Starting a new life: Immigrant children connect with nature in their new home

Adapting to their new life in the U.S., Anza Elementary School children are transforming themselves through their new schoolyard habitat project. Above, students learn about native plant and animal food chains. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

By Lisa Cox
January 12, 2017

EL CAJON, Calif. – Dirt flies as students dig in a garden, the sound of laughter bouncing across the schoolyard. “There’s sand in my shoes, but that’s not stopping me!” exclaims Maryna, a third-grader digging holes for new plants at Anza Elementary School.

To get the plant out of the pot, it’s easier to “hug it out.”
Students at Anza Elementary are learning to love
being outdoors.  Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

Maryna and her fellow students have faced a lot more than sand in their shoes.

Most of the children who attend Anza, in El Cajon, just east of San Diego, have emigrated from war-torn countries such as Iraq and Syria. They came from places of desert rock and dirt, confined to their homes, fearful because running outside could be fatal.

From a hopeless situation overseas to a hopeful new life in the U.S., the children are transforming themselves into confident young girls and boys. And the supportive principal, teachers, Earth Discovery Institute (EDI), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Service) and others are witnessing this through their new schoolyard habitat project.

The Schoolyard Habitat Program is sponsored by the Service that awards grants to school to create wildlife habitat on school grounds.

These projects are planned as a permanent part of the school’s landscape, where future classes can build upon the work of past students.

“What we are witnessing here is a powerfully positive change in their connection with the outside world,” says Chantel Jimenez, urban coordinator for the SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project. “These students feel cared about. They know the community came together for them. Every person involved cares so much about this project, because they care so much about the kids. We’re totally inspired by them.”

Students work together to create a dirt wall around their
plant to help it retain water. Credit: Mary Duffy/USFWS

The Anza Schoolyard Habitat project began in March 2015 when more than 100 students and their families built trails, created mounds for different ecosystems, and cleared weeds called “goat-heads.”

Since then, the school’s dirt lot has become a welcoming habitat for birds, butterflies and bees.

“It was like a big sand box,” says Mary Duffy, EDI instructor. They loved moving dirt! The joy of being outside and getting their hands dirty, and the freedom to giggle and laugh.”

Students who have been there for a few months or years, enjoy learning together with students who are brand new. Yousif, a new first-grader at Anza this year, experienced this first hand as a young boy.

Yousif was born in Iraq, in the Kurdish capital of Arbil. His family fled to Lebanon with the threat of persecution and lived in a refugee camp for several years.

His family was given an opportunity to come to the U.S. in September and Yousif was enrolled at Anza. He had very limited English, and never attended school in his home country before.

Refuge specialist Jim Kelly, now retired, said working at Anza with the children was one of his favorite and most rewarding projects. Credit: Lisa Cox/USFWS

Recently, his class was introduced to the Schoolyard Habitat and was shown pictures of bees pollinating flowers.

Each student was given a Q-tip to imitate a bee’s legs and he followed other students from flower to flower mimicking bees. Then he followed other classmates in making a bee mask to wear. He was so excited that he began buzzing and running around the garden like a bee.

Another student who spoke Arabic and English shared that Yousif had never seen a bee pollinate flowers. He said that in the refugee camp, there was only dirt and flies.

“Whenever Yousif is in the garden he is smiling,” says Cynthia Knight, the school's prinicpal. "He is more aware of nature around him and excitedly points out the flowers and bees he finds whenever he is out with his classmates. He is not only learning to speak English, but learning that it’s okay to feel safe in an outdoor environment.”

Vicky Bonnett, another EDI instructor, teaches the students about pollination and food chains. She also guides teachers in weaving outdoor nature into their curriculum. It’s a very rewarding experience for her to watch the children grow into their confidence.

Anza Elementary School principal Cynthia Knight, and EDI board member and San Diego National Wildlife Refuge volunteer, Hector Valtierra, during a community planting day. Credit: Mary Duffy/USFWS

“Being in a new place is already kind of scary,” she says. “Learning out here and actually creating the habitat makes them feel super empowered to know that they can do it.”

The people who made it possible, the students and their families, are here to stay. Knight says she hopes to have this schoolyard habitat for decades.

The immigrant children who have settled in El Cajon with their families are altering the course of their lives. From never attending school or playing outside, to teaching each other and even other adults about native nature, these students are creating a sense of place here on American soil.

They are getting a pretty amazing second chance.

The Anza Schoolyard habitat was made possible by a USFWS Schoolyard Habitat grant, the USFWS SoCal Urban Wildlife Refuge Project, San Diego Mountain Biking Association, Endangered Habitats Conservancy, San Diego Foundation, Hanson Aggregates, the Earth Discovery Institute, and many volunteers.


Lisa Cox is a visitor services and public affairs specialist for the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex.