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Learning To Love The Water: Teaching Resettled Refugees Swimming Safety

Students from Lynda Siegel's ESL class are learning water safety through a free course at the Greater Burlington YMCA.

For many Vermonters, swimming is learned early and central to summer fun. But for children who are new to the United States and still learning English, swimming can be a completely foreign concept.

Many children who come to Vermont as refugees are from cultures where swimming isn't practiced. That could be for religious guidelines that necessitate that bodies remain covered, or it could be that open water is simply too dangerous:

"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,’" Lynda Siegel teaches ESL students at Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington.

That's why a water safety program at the Greater Burlington YMCA has been teaching New American children how to be safe — and have fun — in the water.

"For a lot of these kids, there's no access to a swimming pool, no access to swim lessons," says Siegel. Most of her students came to Vermont through the refugee resettlement program.

Siegel's students are Somali, Congolese and Bhutanese. She teaches an ESL classroom of students in third, fourth and fifth grade.

Five years ago, the Burlington YMCA Youth and Families Coordinator Jess Lukas reached out to the Integrated Arts Academy to offer the free, five-day water safety course. Siegel says she jumped on the opportunity.

She says because her students didn’t grow up around water, and are still learning to speak English, they are at risk during water activities.

"And if you don't speak English and somebody says, 'stay in shallow end,' but you don't know what the shallow end is," Siegel explains, "then you're particularly vulnerable."

The week before the water safety course, Siegel teaches her student vocabulary words like "deep," "shallow," "blow bubbles," and "kick." She also has them read several books about swimming, incorporating swimming concepts into the reading and writing curriculum.


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.

Siegel says 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 [at the pool]. We often have this scene of the girls clinging to the railings at the stairway," Siegel says.

From fear to freestyle

Sandra is a third-grader who moved to Vermont from a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal. She says the first time she tried swimming "I was scared, and I was nervous."

But she persevered, and with "my teacher is holding my hand, and practicing with me doing the floating in back, and swimming and doing scooping" she quickly overcame her fear of the water.

Sandra rattles off other terms that the instructors use to teach them swimming strokes, her favorite is, "chicken, airplane, soldier," which is how they teach the kids to do the backstroke.

But her parents, she says, " never touched a swimming pool." She's the first in the family to learn to swim. Sandra shows no signs of being nervous now. After we finish talking, she slides happily back into the pool.

Two of her classmates are wearing what's called a birkini: a swimsuit that covers the entire body and has a hijab.

The money for the swimsuits came from a partnership with the University of Vermont Medical Center, says Doug Bishop, a spokesperson for the Greater Burlington YMCA.

Bishop says the funds "help ensure that we have bathing suits that are appropriate for some of the different religions that we serve through our New American populations." He says the YMCA owns several swimsuits that offer varying degrees of coverage "allowing the girls to have their head covered or full body covered — special swimsuits — so they can participate just like every other student in their class."

Water safety training for all Vermont kids

The swim lessons for Siegel's class are grant-funded, so the program is offered at no cost to the school or the children. Bishop says the YMCA offers a similar free water safety program to all second-grade classrooms in the Burlington-area.

"Here we are in Vermont, bordering Lake Champlain and all the rivers we have here, and we know this is an important part of summer activities for families," says Bishop. "So we figure these new American families are going to be looking to do much of what they see their American counterparts doing here. And so we want their kids to have same sort of fun, in a very safe way."

Judging by the students enthusiasm on the last day of the course, it's hard to imagine they didn't grown up in the water. The students have learned how to float, how to tread water, and how to help a fellow student without putting themselves at risk. And some are even beginning to learn the breaststroke and the backstroke.

Instructor Jess Lukas has been working with Seigel's classroom for the past five years. She says the transformation from the students' first day to their last day of the course is remarkable.

"Today, being our last day, the fifth day, you see they come in, they sit down, they're ready to go," says Lukas. "Even the kids who are still nervous, they know they can try, they know they're in a safe environment."

Lukas says the outreach to New Americans is working: 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 YMCA with their families.

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

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kathleen is VPR's Morning Edition producer.